Lost in Translation

Providence public schools, multilingual pedagogy, and the coronavirus crisis

by Leela Berman

Illustration by Yukti Agarwal

published April 24, 2020


ENTERING: The language of achievement and deficit 


Two comprehensive reports researching the conditions in the Providence Public School District (PPSD) came out in 2019. In June, researchers at John Hopkins University released a report that outlined how the school district inadequately supports students, which led to the state takeover of the Providence Public Schools (PPS) and a flurry of action and events at Brown to consider the role the University might play in supporting the public school system. 

A year earlier, in 2018, the Providence Public Schools were notified by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) that the district was in violation of the Equal Education Opportunities Act by failing to effectively identify and support English language students. In response, the then-School Commissioner requested that the Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS) investigate the situation for English learners in the PPSD and provide suggestions for realizing the standards outlined in a settlement with the DOJ. The CSCS produced a report focused specifically on the quality of education, support for, and identification of English learners in PPS, and noted that supporting English learners was a persistent and long-term need in the PPSD. 

Much like the John Hopkins Report, which harkened back to a 1993 report entitled “Providence Blueprint for Education” (PROBE), the CSCS report followed up on a 2012 study completed by the Council. The 2012 report warned that the school district was underprepared to support English Language Learners (ELLs). Not much had changed by 2019. It is easy to get lost in the language of these reports, which focus especially on “instructional, staffing, and fiscal issues” to meet DOJ compliance. Shifting between legalese and statistics, they construct a narrative of achievement—one focused on “measured” success as defined by meeting a series of criteria as measured by the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) ACCESS for ELLs exam.  

The CGCS report, and English language learners in general, are absent from many articles about the recent school takeover. This is true despite the fact that about one-third of students in the PPSD are English learners—as opposed to about one-tenth of students nation-wide—reflecting a long-standing erasure of English learners in media and government attention on schools.     

Despite the importance of understanding how the city is caring for its ELL students, the CGCS report’s sole focus on improving exam-based English achievement ignores the fact that multilingualism itself—fluency and comfort in multiple languages and cultures—can be an asset and a victory. The current focus on language learning is one that seeks equity, but English-learning students are still invisible in larger political and educational conversations. Pushing past the framework of achievement raises the questions: what would a critical model of language pedagogy look like? Is English language learning assimilation? Amidst a global pandemic and widespread reliance on remote learning, what does language learning look like? 

English Learning has been institutionalized in Providence and beyond, and that very institution is in flux and requires adaptation—during the pandemic and after.  




EMERGING: The language of English Language Learning

The institution of English learning first emerged as a legal one. The 1967 Bilingual Education Act was the first federal act to recognize the specialized needs of students who were not fluent in English and was inextricably connected to the Civil Rights movement and the push for educational rights. The fights against school segregation and linguistic discrimination went hand-in-hand. The 1974 Supreme Court case Lau v. Nichols determined that schools denied a “meaningful opportunity” to students who could not speak English, violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and in turn, that schools must provide these students with supplemental learning. The Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 prohibited discrimination and required that schools take action to support equal participation. In the span of a decade, it was made clear at the national level that the language barrier rendered education unequal: students who did not know English were being taught in English. The ‘simple’ solution was to support students in learning English.  

How is this task carried out within the confines of a school district? Everything on the PPSD website is listed in both Spanish and English. There is no button to translate—all information is already bilingual. The district refers to an array of students as Multilingual Learners, who are reached by a variety of programs. There are four English as a Second Language (ESL) programs for varying levels of English ability and two bilingual programs, which allow students whose native language is Spanish to learn in both Spanish and English simultaneously. Not all of these models are available at every school, forcing some families to make complex choices about whether to travel an excessive distance to find a school that meets their needs. Furthermore, these models are not complete: there has been some debate in recent years, for example, about whether PPSD should create a separate bilingual program for Portuguese speakers. These programs attempt to reach a vast multilingual community with a wide variety of different languages and needs. 

The day-to-day of these programs might look different at each school, but one thing is the same across Rhode Island: the examination used to identify English learners and score the “level” of English learning the students have achieved. The exam is called ACCESS for ELLs, and places people into five levels of a sociocultural context: entering, emerging, developing, expanding, bridging, or reaching. 

Because this exam assesses the language proficiency of students, it is also the assessment used to measure the effectiveness of the programs. According to the CGCS report, many English learners are still at the ‘developing’ three after seven years in the program. The equality dreamed up in the ‘60s has yet to be fully realized—and just last year, a group of Rhode Island republicans tried to make separate “language academies” for ESL students in an ordinance that was undeniably segregationist. 

The silencing of ESL students and the erasure of their programs perpetuate a racialized and linguistically-ordered hierarchy of education, one that continues to this day. At the end of one data set the CGCS report states: “23 schools—more than half of all schools in PPSD—had enough ELs enrolled to warrant substantial instructional, staffing, and financial attention.” However, the report concludes that despite the huge presence of students learning English in the PPSD, “For all intents and purposes, about one-third of the district’s enrollment is invisible.” 




DEVELOPING: The language of improvement

I worked in a bilingual classroom as part of a Brown University tutoring program earlier this year, working once a week with a handful of third graders on math. On the first day, I did not know I had been assigned to a bilingual classroom and expressed concern to the teacher about whether I could effectively tutor, given that I am not completely fluent in Spanish. She reminded me that math itself is a language, that it was just important that the students learned the math. This teacher’s comment is important: multilingual students are not just learning English, they are also learning a wide array of subjects and adapting to the social contexts of their school environment. The students I was working with loved that they knew more Spanish than I did, which served as a reminder: they were developing the skills to go to school in two languages. 

In the post-state-takeover world, teachers have been an immediate focus, because they can support students even in a system that still needs longer-term fixing. A new program announced by RIDE will try to address the need for ESL teachers. This program provides reimbursement for Providence teachers to receive ESL certification, and four colleges—Rhode Island College, the Rhode Island School for Progressive Education, Roger Williams University, and the University of Rhode Island—committed to providing seats for Providence teachers in their programs. While Brown has a Masters of Arts in Portuguese Bilingual Education or ESL Education and Cross-Cultural Studies, it does not provide actual certification for educating at either the elementary or secondary level. 

While teachers can be a key resource in combating the structural administrative, funding, and staffing issues that lead to the ostracizing of multilingual students, they cannot be the sole means of supporting English Language Learners. 




EXPANDING: The language of critical pedagogy

In the essay “How to Tame A Wild Tongue,” Chicana feminist theorist Gloria Anzaldúa writes: 

“Attacks on one’s form of expression with the intent to censor are a violation of the First Amendment. El Anglo con cara de innocente nos arrancó la lengua. Wild tongues can’t be tamed, they can only be cut out.”

She details how when she was in school, she would be yelled at by teachers for not speaking “American,” despite coming from a family that has lived in the Americas for far longer than the United States border has been defined. Language is political. For many years before and after the first court cases and legislation about language and education, English fluency for students who spoke other languages was the political and pedagogical goal for educators, legislators, and even some families. For many, this meant that English learning, be it in an ELL program or in the everyday, was a border regime which could lead to linguistic loss and, in Anzaldúa’s eyes, cultural destruction. In some ways, this story of linguistic loss is personal—my mother came to the United States from Mysuru, India when she was five years old. Over the years, she lost the ability to speak kannada, which she spoke fluently then. Although she by no means considers this cultural destruction, it is clear that linguistic assimilation was the goal. 

One theoretical shift in considering and naming students who are learning English suggests a pathway forward for linguistic equity, as opposed to expecting assimilation to English. Ofelia García, a leading scholar in a field of multilingual education, believes that bilingual students can be viewed as a resource rather than a deficit, and that viewing learning English as a deficit means English language learners are ignored and under-resourced. In her seminal work, she suggests a new name: “Calling...children ‘emergent bilinguals’ makes reference to a positive characteristic—not one of being limited or being learners… the term emergent bilinguals refers to the children’s potential in developing their bilingualism; it does not suggest a limitation or a problem in comparison to those who speak English.” Growing up in a multilingual family, navigating between multiple languages and cultures, and the practice of processing multiple languages are skills of cultural import. While “emergent bilingual” is not used within the Council of Great City Schools report, one might see the “multilingual students” umbrella in the PPSD website as gravitating toward the emergent bilingual theory, as are the bilingual development classes that some schools offer. 

Furthermore, emergent bilinguals can develop a sense of critical consciousness, if education considers deeply how language and culture are politicized. The United States, which so often exploits immigrants whose families have lived here much longer than the US settler-colonial project has existed, has no official national language. One only needs to look up “speaking Spanish in public” and scroll through a stream of videos of people harassing others for speaking in Spanish to see, however, that this proclamation does not translate into lived experience. Language becomes a form of racialized control, a way of establishing economic and social borders within the nation’s constructed physical borders.

Back in the third grade classroom, a map of the United States hung prominently on the wall. Students congregated in the room at the end of the day, gathering their backpacks and then looking up, seeing the map. They began pointing to the places—off the map—where their families were from. One noticed that Puerto Rico wasn’t on the map. It is not only emergent bilinguals who are made invisible, but also their sociocultural backgrounds, often navigating multiple cultures, places, and communities. These absences are felt profoundly. Perhaps schools are afraid of reckoning with these absences, of opening the language with which they teach and learn to something more than just achievement. These absences are one more “gap” perpetuated in a school system founded on segregation and inequity. 

Conversations about emergent bilinguals so often focus on their achievement or their deficits, their invisibility or their unknowability.  Often, conversations in the media ignore the complicated process of learning English, and how that can be culturally loaded. 

In the CGCS report, one refrain  was that “principals are worried that ELs will affect the achievement scores of their schools.” This belies the fact that to effectively grapple with speaking two languages (or more!) is an achievement within itself, and that rewarding schools based on achievement leads to the perpetual underfunding and intentional ignoring of the most marginalized communities. Instead, “achievement” must be expanded to see that emergent bilingualism and a critical pedagogy of English learning are a necessity for institutional and political equity.




BRIDGING: The language of coronavirus support

Equity has become a prominent conversation during the global pandemic, and the PPSD is no exception. The district immediately transitioned to remote learning, with substantial thought put into supporting emergent bilinguals. Soljane Martinez, Educational Coordinator at Brown University’s Annenberg Institute, wrote to the Independent: “As you can imagine, a district that large, having to shift EVERYTHING online in a matter of days is no easy feat—and they have done an AMAZING job.” The Annenberg Institute is supporting the district with “translation of resources and materials in a variety of languages that the district simply does not have the people power to provide,” and hoping to use the many languages spoken by students, staff, and faculty to collaborate. Martinez emphasized that “There are very specific languages needed... If we could get even one person from each language to come forward and volunteer to help, we'd be ensuring that EVERY family of PPSD was receiving timely communication and resources in their native language.” This highlights one of the complexities of supporting a multilingual population—even if many of the multilingual students and their families speak Spanish, not all of them do, and all students must be supported. A district hotline allows for three-way translation. 

The Multilingual Learning Team for the district could not be reached for comment, but the website for distance learning indicates that English learning will be supported in part via software like Imagine Español, Imagine Learning, and Rosetta Stone. The distance learning website is comprehensive and details a series of plans for a minimum of 330 minutes of instructional learning each day, including “English language development for multilingual students.” “Multilingual learner supports” is one of the four main categories on the distance learning website, and many of the supports are focused on providing resources and information about the crisis and school updates in as many languages as possible. Just like how there is a gap between the theory and practice of equitable language learning, there will likely be gaps—and improvisations—in this proposed method and how to best support multilingual students during this time. It will rest on the many involved parties—teachers, families, school administration, and translators—to bridge this divide. 




REACHING: The language of possibility

This article grapples with a series of questions that do not fit into the conventional model of achievement-focused understanding. In the reports, in legislative histories, and in movements toward educational equity both past and present, it becomes clear that from theory to practice, practice to examination, law to situation, and expectations to reality, much gets lost in translation. 

As with many other issues of educational equity, despite the “on paper” ideals of multilingual education, emergent bilinguals continue to be dismissed and ignored. At the same time, many efforts—such as the effectiveness of a dedicated teacher, a philosophical re-framing of language learners as “emergent bilinguals,” or ensuring all families receive coronavirus information in a language they are comfortable with—continue to push forward. In Providence, however, structural and financial upheaval is required to completely support these efforts. 

It is difficult to predict what will happen post-coronavirus, when schools reopen and RIDE begins to move forward with fulfilling the DOJ settlement from 2018, where RIDE agreed to effectively identity and support English-learning students. What is clear is that emergent bilinguals are an essential part of conceptualizing a changed PPSD and thinking past the language of achievement. Now, their success, like that of many students, is judged by their exam-based proficiency. They are institutionalized and legalized. Online, it is easy to find articles listing language-learning apps one can use to learn a new language during quarantine, but shockingly harder to find stories of those categorized as English learners within schools. They should be sidelined no longer.  


One day, LEELA BERMAN B’23 will have a conversation with her grandparents in kannada.