Speak the Same

New Mexico public schools’ push to improve literacy rates reinforces longstanding English-centric language development, frustrating some educators

Trisha Moquino couldn’t stomach the limitations standing in the way of her Cochiti Pueblo students.

They were consistently denied a chance to learn their own language and culture, says Moquino, a longtime educator who has some harsh words for what she believes drives the roadblocks.

“Because settler colonial education has always been about assimilating our people, assimilating our children,” Moquino tells SFR, and “part of that assimilation process has been English.”

Knowing her students and her community deserved more and wanting to be part of the solution, Moquino helped found the Keres Children’s Learning Center to serve the Cochiti Pueblo community in 2012.

The initiative eventually expanded into a dual-language elementary program and now stands as one of the best examples of bilingual education in New Mexico.

“What the public school system in the state of New Mexico is guilty of, is perpetuating this false myth that you will only be successful if you speak English,” says Moquino, who works as the Keres center’s education director. The myth, she adds, has proliferated among communities around the state, convincing parents to give up their Native languages to speak English with their children.

The range of languages students speak in New Mexico’s classrooms reflects the state’s diversity. State officials have classified 17% of students as English-language learners—one of four “at-risk” groups the state has failed to provide a sufficient public education, according to the 2018 ruling in Martinez and Yazzie v. State of New Mexico.

In the landmark case, the late-District Court Judge Sarah Singleton indicted the state’s lack of educational inputs for at-risk students. The inadequate schooling has prompted significant investments from the state, but advocates maintain that more needs to be done to address education inequities.

For students who speak a non-English language at home, experts recommend bilingual education.

“If we’re to do this right, in our tribal and our Spanish language communities…We really have to work with communities to kind of lift that colonizer lens off the top of this thing and start developing the program that’s driven by the community’s values and traditions if it’s going to be effective,” says David Rogers, executive director for the nonprofit Dual Language Education of New Mexico.

Rogers points to research that demonstrates the efficacy of bilingual education and how it can help close achievement gaps over time as a reason more schools should take this approach to teaching multilingual students.

Nearly a third of the students at Santa Fe’s Nina Otero Community School are English learners, with a majority of them speaking Spanish. Principal Patricia Gharrity tells SFR that bilingual education would best serve her school’s students.

Instead, like most of the state, Gharrity says her students are provided English-language development services, which provide targeted interventions—a designation determined by surveys about children’s home language and tests assessing their understanding of the dominant language of instruction.

The assessments don’t correctly identify English learners in every instance, some educators say. But when the designation is assigned, the state is obligated to provide 45 minutes each day of English-language development.

In schools across the state, research found that English learners were frequently placed in remedial reading programs instead of provided authentic language development resources.

The miseducation of English-language learners served as a key piece of evidence in the Yazzie/Martinez case.

And as Rogers explains, the state has recently adopted some policies that work against bilingual education. He points to a literacy initiative in which state officials invested heavily.

The Public Education Department launched “Structured Literacy New Mexico,” a statewide initiative at the beginning of the last school year, says Severo Martinez, director of the agency’s Literacy and Humanities Department, with the aims of increasing the number of students who achieve reading proficiency and decreasing the demand for special education services.

A 2019 legislative mandate that requires schools to screen all first grade students for dyslexia and develop structured literacy training for teachers also drove the initiative.

Now in its second year, the literacy initiative provides teacher training and instructional programs for students from Pre-K to third grade. The materials, known as the LETRS course of study, are produced by the private education company Lexia, which the education department pays roughly $1,000 per teacher for training and access to programming. Martinez adds that the Legislature has appropriated over $3 million in non-recurring dollars to support the teacher training.

Sarah Martin, PED’s structured literacy program manager, says the LETRS training is the “gold standard when it comes to the science of reading,” and it gives teachers manuals and facilitated support to best include reading interventions in the classroom.

The professional development’s focus concerns Rogers. “It’s a monolingual, English-centric approach to literacy development,” he tells SFR, adding that heritage language speakers need time to learn to read in their mother tongue alongside English.

The state’s initiative and the associated requirements are taking away from programs to support second-language development, Rogers says.

While acknowledging the value of promoting literacy development, Rogers says the state did “this without considering specific needs of second-language learners.”

Agreeing with Rogers, Vanessa Romero, Santa Fe Public Schools’ deputy superintendent, tells SFR that the training focuses on English literacy. “We need to pay more attention to looking at foundational skill supports for” English-learners, Romero says.

Inconsistencies between the dyslexia-screening assessment for English and Spanish speakers need to be aligned to ensure all students who need additional support are accurately identified, she says.

Martinez notes that PED has responded to criticism by developing a professional learning program for teachers to improve teaching of Spanish-English bilingual literacy. The document is currently in the draft stage and is planned for rollout during the next school year.

This is the final story in SFR’s series on New Mexico’s educational landscape and how it has changed since the 2018 Martinez and Yazzie v. State of New Mexico lawsuit. Here’s a look back at all of SFR’s coverage.

March 2 - Does Not Equal - New Mexico faces a steep climb to make education more equitable

March 9 - Disruptions to testing and muddied accountability

March 16 - New Mexico’s legacy to make better teachers

March 23 - Students remain disconnected despite the new virtual face of education

March 30 - Funding shifts for at-risk children

This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.

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