Not Your Mother's Tongue

Language Troubles in Rhode Island's Schools

by Jamie Packs

Illustration by Pierie Korostoff

published September 18, 2015

“I’m from Guatemala,” Leandro tells me the moment I enter Ms. Lopez’s fifth grade classroom at William D’Abate Elementary School in Providence’s Olneyville neighborhood. Unprompted, the students around him begin to rattle off their countries of origin: El Salvador, Mexico, the Dominican Republic. They buzz with visible excitement, forgetting the long division worksheets that sit in front of them. Ms. Lopez soon has to come over to calm them down. “It’s time to focus on your math,” she says. 


Structural Inequality

Rhode Island is facing a crisis in English Language Learner education. The Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University made this claim in a 2013 study, and it appears that not much has changed since then. The Rhode Island Department of Education defines an English Language Learner (ELL) as a student whose difficulties in reading, speaking or writing English may render them unable to meet proficiency standards on State assessments, to succeed in a classroom in which the principal language of instruction is English, or to “participate fully in society.” And English Language Learners in Rhode Island are struggling to keep up with their peers across the nation. The report by the Latino Policy Institute, for example, revealed that in 8th grade mathematics achievement, ELLs in Rhode Island placed dead last.

The crisis facing English Language Learners cannot be considered separately from the education of Latino populations in Rhode Island. According to the Rhode Island Department of Education’s website, there are nearly 10,000 students in Rhode Island’s public school system who receive English as a Second Language (ESL) and bilingual education services, 75% of whom are Latino. While this accounts for only 7% of the state’s total public school student population, the number spikes in the urban core of Rhode Island (Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls), where three out of four students are Latino. The percentage of students receiving ESL and bilingual education services in the district of Providence is more than triple the statewide average. 

The 2013 report by the Latino Policy Institute, which is a comprehensive study on the state of educational performance amongst Latinos in Rhode Island, found that the achievement gaps between Latino and white students in Rhode Island are some of the worst in the country. Latinos in Rhode Island were also found to perform below the level of Latinos in other states, scoring one half to one full grade level behind Latinos nationally in several subjects. “These same-race disparity patterns do not exist for White or Black students in Rhode Island,” says the report. 

While there are many factors that influence these wide achievement gaps between Latino and white students, language is one of the most significant. ELLs in Rhode Island perform poorly because they are being educated within a system that is not designed for them, and in a language that is not their own. At William D’Abate Elementary School, Ms. Lopez spends most of her Fridays translating standardized tests for students whose families have only recently immigrated to the United States, and who thus have no English language skills. These are the kinds of problems that many ELL classrooms have to deal with rather than spending time on learning.

Since the Latino Policy Institute’s 2013 report, Rhode Island has made some progress in addressing the inequalities amongst its students. These efforts include district-level initiatives to increase attendance rates, as well as $250,000 of funding for proposals based on Latino Policy Institute recommendations. Yet with cuts to the State’s education budget, including a recent $9 million loss in federal funds, the future for ELLs in Rhode Island is looking rather grim. The continued presence of vast achievement gaps points to deep structural inequalities in which ELLs lack language support and struggle with their coursework as a result. These inequalities, however, transcend the surface inadequacies of the education system and extend towards deeper issues that cannot be fixed by small increases in funding or temporary initiatives. 


Segregation and Erasure

It is no secret that Rhode Island’s schools are segregated. And given the correlations that exist between Rhode Island’s Latino communities and poverty, English Language Learners in Rhode Island are largely found in schools within lower-income areas—schools that are vastly unequipped with the resources and quality of teaching necessary for student success. These inadequate educational environments are, of course, compounded with the barriers to success that these students already face. 

In a recent broadcast by This American Life, Nikole Hannah-Jones, an investigative reporter at the New York Times, addresses school integration as “the one thing we are not talking about” when it comes to reducing disparities. She explains that the achievement gap across minority and majority student populations halved between 1971 and 1988, following Brown v. Board of Education. After this period, however, American schools began to re-segregate as the issue fell out of the public eye and school districts no longer actively pursued integration. “And it is at that exact moment that you see the achievement gap start to widen again,” says Hannah-Jones. 

In many ways, Rhode Island’s public schools are representative of the deep-cutting effects that segregation can have at a time when the words “segregation” or “integration” are thought of as irrelevant in the contemporary educational discourse. While Hannah-Jones specifically refers to the achievement gaps between white and African American students, her line of argument very much applies to Latino ELLs in Rhode Island. A fully integrated school system means that minority students have better access to quality teaching and resources, which are the most important factors in improving student performance. This level of integration is far from the state’s reality. 

For ELLs, segregation is combined with less visible oppression. Faced with a system that is inadequately structured to support their language needs, ELLs often lose their original language skills as a product of being educated entirely in English. Over and over again the same message is reinforced: if a student wants to succeed, they must speak English. But this ‘success’ comes at a cost. The kinds of linguistic erasures that this logic necessitates are linked to larger cultural erasures that work to negate identities not normally considered American. And this phenomenon is not limited to Rhode Island alone. 

In 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act removed the term “bilingual education” from federal education policies. What was previously called the Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Language Affairs was renamed the Office of English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement for Limited English Proficient Students (OELA). The conscious (and rather convoluted) revision of wording is representative of a value shift away from bilingual education and towards pure English language acquisition. In other words, linguistic erasure has become the norm of the system. The bilingual capacity of a great deal of America’s youth—as well as the kinds of cultural knowledge that come with that—is being surrendered to an assimilationist language learning policy that only values the use of English. But what happens when a non-English native tongue is valued, rather than treated as a barrier to education?





Outside the System

The International Charter School (ICS) in Pawtucket, which was founded in 2001 as an independent charter school, provides an alternative model in which many of the unique educational needs of ELLs are carefully considered rather than unjustly overlooked. Across all of its material, the school proudly flaunts its motto: “Teaching the languages of our community: English, Español, Português.” When Julie Nora, the director of the International Charter School, inevitably repeated the motto for the Independent over the phone, she put special emphasis on the word “our,” launching into an excited description of how the school’s philosophy reflects Rhode Island’s history and unique patterns of immigration (indeed, while much of the narrative of bilingual education in the United States has been dominated by the presence of Spanish speakers, Rhode Island has a long history of immigration from Portuguese-speaking communities). 

The International Charter School uses a dual language education model in which all students spend half of their time learning in English, and the other half of their time learning in either Spanish or Portuguese, depending on which “strand” the student’s family chooses. This language model has grown in prominence in the last few years, but has yet to be implemented on a large scale. Dual language learning differs immensely from standard ESL or bilingual education services, in which teaching happens either entirely in English or in Spanish to a separated group of students. ICS uses a “week-to-week” model in which instruction alternates between English and either Spanish or Portuguese on a weekly basis. 

Julie Nora knows the benefits of dual language learning like the back of her hand, effortlessly listing the cognitive, professional, social, and cultural benefits of the pedagogical approach. Dual language learning, she insists, aligns with an increasingly large need for people who are able to navigate cultural boundaries. Importantly, dual language learning is the only multilingual educational model that targets both minority and majority student populations. Learning that happens in a dual language learning classroom is multidirectional. Native Spanish speakers are able to learn from native English speakers and vice versa. Beyond the benefits this kind of environment has for the students, dual language learning establishes an important value shift in which the presence of non-native English speakers is seen as an asset, and not an obstacle, to learning. While ICS certainly has not found a cure-all solution, it is clear that their pedagogical model directly addresses the systemic inequalities—both material and symbolic—that are so pervasive at other schools. 

And the model has proven to be a success, at least at ICS. In 2010 the school was recognized as one of 20 Regents’ Commended Schools as a result of its success in closing achievement gaps between ELLs and non-ELLs. The school was also featured in a study on “next generation charter schools” conducted by the Center for American Progress. According to the study, 45% of fourth grade ELLs at the International Charter School are proficient in reading, compared to 22% statewide. ELLs at the International Charter School performed at similarly higher rates in other subjects and grade levels, suggestive of the benefits that exist within a more integrated education system.

Certainly there are a number of challenges that come along with this educational model. Nora describes, for example, the difficulty in hiring staff that are adequately prepared to teach students in this kind of environment. Given the unique circumstances of the International Charter School, professional development of staff needs to happen at the school level, Nora explains. She also emphasizes the need for a pipeline that can more effectively bring teachers into the community, a task that is rather difficult in a state as small as Rhode Island. Nonetheless, Nora is palpably proud of the staff at ICS. “Our staff is very much representative of our students,” she explains. In a country where students of color rarely have the opportunity to learn from teachers who look like them, Nora lauds the diversity of her staff. Only 19 out of the 42 teachers at ICS were born in the United States. In contrast, only 1-3% of teachers in the Rhode Island public school system self-identify as Latino.


Lost in Translation

ICS’s charter school status has afforded it a degree of flexibility that simply is not possible in most of Rhode Island’s public schools. Whereas decision-making in public schools happens at the district level (all of Providence, for instance), decisions at ICS are made within the school, and are thus able to more fully respond to the school’s priorities, namely dual language learning. The school also has much more freedom in hiring teachers, ultimately allowing them to bring in people who embody their central mission. And this notion of “mission alignment” extends even to the families, who can send their children to the school even if they do not live in the district. What this suggests about the status of education as a privilege rather than a right for non-English speaking communities is certainly troubling. Nonetheless, the waiting list for the school is growing by the day.

Charter schools in Rhode Island are facing their own spate of difficulties. Debates over the fate of Rhode Island’s charter schools have been intensifying in the past few months, with discussions specifically centered on a piece of pending legislation that would require any future expansion of RI charter schools to be unanimously approved by every city or town council where the charter school’s students would reside. These conversations are indicative of a growing rift between charter and public schools on a national level. And almost all of the surrounding discourse frames the issue as a neat dichotomy in which charter and public schools are in direct competition for resources. While there are efforts to invoke partnerships between charter and public schools, the discussion at the state level appears to be stuck within an either/or binary.

Nora, however, insists on her school’s collaborative efforts. The International Charter School, she explains, has been working with two other school districts to open up dual language programs in the coming year. ICS’s strategic plan also includes a proposal to establish a bilingual resource center that will help provide information to other schools in the state. Nonetheless, it is clear that if any progress is to be made in closing the achievement gaps between white and Latino students in Rhode Island, change needs to happen at a systemic level. Whether or not the system will allow schools like ICS to spread is another question. ICS’s model, however, reveals something about what must be valued going forward. If there is anything that can be translated from ICS to other schools, it is the kinds of priorities that must be kept in mind when imagining the future education of non-native speakers of English, a future that is especially important considering that the majority of America’s population will be non-white in the near future. An educational policy that fails to address these shifts will eventually only amplify the kinds of cultural and economic exclusions that already exist. Dual language learning stands as one example of the possibility of a system in which Latino students are never allowed to fall behind their peers in the first place, where we don’t constantly have to talk about “catching up” and can instead just talk about learning.


JAMIE PACKS B’17 needs to focus on his math.