Honoring Heritage

SFPS aims to improve student achievement through stronger bilingual education

Parents at Santa Fe Public Schools have little time left before the district’s annual lottery, which allows parents to place children in a school outside their residential area, closes Jan. 31 for the 2024-2025 school year. For parents who hope to land their kids at a bilingual English-Spanish program, the window is especially important.

Daniel Pastrana, the district’s new director of the Language & Culture Department, says the district wants to raise awareness about dual language classes offered across 10 of its schools to as many families as possible, in part promoting recent plans to build on bilingual programs to improve educational outcomes for English-learning students.

Pastrana says the “small but mighty” three-person department has been working toward the goal of “biliteracy and bilingualism, grade-level academic achievement and socio-cultural confidence” for the 2,200 English-learning—or, as Pastrana prefers to refer to them, “emergent bilingual”—students in the program.

“We’ve been really focusing on instruction this year with all our schools, going in and working side-by-side with teachers and leaders to grow our understanding of best practices for instruction for multilingual students,” Pastrana tells SFR.

Pastrana says the department’s priorities include professional development; instructional alignment and creating strategic plans to ensure full staffing; and minimizing combination classes of more than one grade to boost student achievement in dual language classes.

At schools where bilingual instruction is necessary to serve a higher proportion of students whose first language is Spanish—like Sweeney Elementary on Santa Fe’s Southside—these improvements could go a long way.

Cristina Cardenas Lopez, for example, teaches a fourth- and fifth-grade combination bilingual class at Sweeney.

“We need a lot of teachers—even English teachers. Here [at Sweeney], with 11 bilingual classrooms, all of them are combo classes,” she says. “It’s a pity, because if I just had half of this classroom, I think the program could do more.”

According to Cardenas Lopez, many new arrivals come to Sweeney from a variety of Spanish-speaking countries, including Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Since this school year began, she says, her class of 23 students grew to 27—three more students than the state’s student:teacher ratio law allows.

However, Cardenas Lopez emphasizes that Sweeney will not turn away students in need of linguistic support. Pastrana, with more than 23 years of experience teaching bilingual classes and a lifetime of switching between speaking Spanish and English, echoes the district’s commitment.

“I’m the child of two immigrants, from Ecuador and Colombia, and I did not have the opportunity to have language and culture reflected in my schooling from pre-K through university,” Pastrana says. “So, it’s really a personal calling for me to make sure that was something we did afford to our students. It’s a wonderful and beautiful way to recognize students’ language and culture.”

SFPS utilizes three different models of bilingual programming. Heritage programs at Ramirez Thomas Elementary, Kearny Elementary, Santa Fe High and Capital High help students develop and maintain a level of comprehension and speaking in Spanish, with less focus on reading and writing. The other two dual language models aim to graduate students who can fluently read, write, speak and comprehend both English and Spanish. At one school, students receive 50% of their instruction per day in English, while at others, teachers use an 80/20 model, starting with more Spanish instruction and increasing the percentage of English each year.

Cardenas Lopez says educators must trust the process and respect the percentages of Spanish instruction each year for the instruction to work, and by the time students reach fourth or fifth grade, they will have a stronger grasp on both languages—at least for speaking.

Last year, Sweeney students did not perform to their full potential. Only 12% of Sweeney students scored proficient on state tests in English and language arts in the 2022-2023 school year, the lowest percentage in the district. Despite these scores, English language learners at Sweeney actually grew in ELA proficiency by 6% over the past year, from 4% to 10%.

“Orally, they’re really fluent. But tests are not always for oral proficiency; they’re always for reading, writing and the grammar as well,” Cardenas Lopez says. “Sometimes they cannot show how smart they are because on tests—even the Spanish tests—the instructions are English.”

To help her students, Cardenas Lopez teaches concepts and definitions in Spanish, then shifts to English words they need to know. For example, in a science class she taught, she explained an anatomical chart to students in Spanish before translating key vocabulary into English as it appears in textbooks.

“We want our students to succeed,” she says. “That’s the motto of our school: Sweeney Succeeds.”

However, some question whether or not students can succeed in dual language programs when test scores are low. A few studies raise concerns about students leaving bilingual programs without proficiency in either of the languages taught.

Pastrana believes differently. One highly influential 2003 study by Thomas and Collier he cites tracked students longitudinally across various language program models, and found that students who consistently learn in well-supported bilingual programs outperform their monolingual peers over time.

Pastrana also cites his own experience teaching dual-language at Manzanita SEED School in Oakland, California as an example of a project succeeding substantially. Within six years of being designated a “failing” school for its low English literacy rates, Manzanita SEED was recognized in the press for receiving a National Title I distinguished school award for closing student achievement gaps for emergent bilingual students better than any other school in the state.

“That showed me really early on in my career what’s possible when done right,” Pastrana says. “Programs need to be properly staffed, they need to be properly supported with professional development and we need to have the correct materials and curriculum to teach grade levels and standards.” SFPS, he says, is poised to “show what the potential is and can be of our bilingual programs.”

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