Emily Bivins

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Interview Text and Audio


The interviewee, Emily Bivins, is the principal of Frank Porter Graham Elementary (101 Smith Level Road, Chapel Hill, NC 27516), the district’s Dual Language magnet school. She was born in Richmond, Virginia but has lived in the central part of North Carolina for most of her life. She grew up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, but moved to Alamance County when she graduated college. She received a BS from Wake Forest University, a MEd from Elon University, a MSA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and an Ed.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She began as a school teacher in Alamance County, then worked in the Central Office as Director of Elementary Instruction, then principal of Carrboro Elementary before her position now as principal of Frank Porter Graham Elementary School in Chapel Hill. The interview covers several different topics related to Dual Language programs in schools, from resources allocated to teachers and students to how classrooms are organized depending on the type of Dual Language program being implemented at the school to how student’s proficiency levels compare to student’s levels at traditional monolingual schools. Bivins also talks about her life history and how she made the decision to dedicate her life to creating a Dual Language school for the Chapel Hill/Carrboro County school system and helping bilingual children succeed.



Danielle Bruce: Okay, so, I’m Danielle Bruce. I’m interviewing Emily Bivins. She is the principal of Frank Porter Graham Elementary School. It is March 26, 2018 and I’m in her office at FPG Elementary School. We’re talking about Dual Language Programs. So my first question for you is, can you tell me a little bit about the structure of the Dual Language Program here at FPG, because I know that there are different structures at different schools and I would like to know specifically about FPG.
Emily Bivins: So FPG is the district’s Dual Language Magnet School, so students enroll to come in the school and it’s based on a lottery. Half of the students enrolled here are native English speakers, half are native Spanish speakers. There are a small population of students who really are not language dominant in either English or Spanish or speakers of a third language. The district office just allocates them in one of the two categories of English speaker or Spanish speaker and that’s how they get to participate in the program. There are two language allocation models that are used here at Frank Porter Graham. When students enroll in kindergarten their parents sign up and say I either want to be in the fifty/fifty track or the Immersion track. If you’re in the fifty/fifty track it means that half their day is in English and half their day is in Spanish. In the early grades there is just one teacher who switches in between the two languages and in the upper grades it’s two different teachers in kind of an English-role classroom and a Spanish-role classroom. If you sign up for the fifty/fifty track then you stay in that track all the way through. For families who sign up for the Immersion track, in kindergarten ninety percent of their day is in Spanish, then first grade is eighty percent, second grade is seventy percent, and then by third grade and then third, fourth, and fifth grade it is all fifty percent, fifty/fifty like it is in the other track. If you sign up for the Immersion track then most of your day is in Spanish with some English language development. For our English Language Learners that is slowly increased through the years. We teach all children to read in Spanish first regardless of what their native language is. The enrollment in the classroom, as I mentioned before, is half English speakers half Spanish speakers so the students not only have access to the adult language modeling but also the modeling from their peers in both languages.
DB: Mhm. Okay, I was wondering how do you hire your staff? What’s the range of native Spanish speakers to…do you have only English speaking teachers? How does that work?
EB: In hiring staff, if you’re going to teach in English, we want you to be proficient in English if you’re the English teacher. So we do have some staff here who are monolingual English speakers. Very few, though. If you’re going to teach in Spanish and you’re going to be a language model in Spanish, we want you to either be a native speaker or have native speaker skills. For the most part, I would say probably ninety to ninety-five percent of our faculty are bilingual. Some teachers might be bilingual but they wouldn’t be what we would consider language models in the teaching of the language of instruction. They might can speak Spanish, for example, and have parent-teacher conferences, plan with their teaching team in Spanish, but not yet have quite the vocabulary we would want them to have in the academic areas to be able to teach in Spanish. So when we interview candidates our interviews are always done bilingually. We tell people that before they come. If we ask a question in Spanish, they answer the question in Spanish. If we ask in English, they answer in English. That way allows us to at least assess oral proficiency. The second and third part of the interview process requires people to have written production in the language of instruction and language for parents. So usually it means sending some sort of, you know, drafting some sort of parent letter for us so that we can look at what their English writing skills look like or their Spanish writing skills. Usually the development and teaching of some sort of unit of study so we can look at what their instructional planning looks like because we would expect teachers to plan and write in the language of instruction in the classroom and if you’re a self-contained teacher you’re doing both English and Spanish…
DB: Mhm.
EB: …in the lower grades. If you’re just doing one or the other language then we would want you to have proficiency in the language of instruction. It’s also important when we’re hiring staff, even if you’re a monolingual English speaker or you’re a very dominant Spanish speaker and still emerging in your English language skills, we would want people who feel comfortable in being around the other language and culture because it’s not unusual for us to have faculty meetings that are all in English and you might need a buddy to help you with that professional learning or we might have professional development all in Spanish and we would want you to feel comfortable maybe not getting everything but having to use an interpreter or buddy to help you through that professional learning experience. We think that’s an important component in addition to the language proficiency. About a third of our faculty are international faculty. They come on special visas to the United States on a cultural exchange program. We try not to let over about a third of our faculty become international teachers because you end up then with not enough teachers who are going to stay and sustain your program. We think that the cultural exchange part is really important in our children learning about various culture and also about language and dialect from various parts of the Spanish speaking world. For teachers who are, you know, U.S. teachers who are going to be here for a while, a chunk of them come from Puerto Rico, a chunk come from all over the United States and have come to be bilingual adults through various means. Some married someone who is a native speaker, some studied language the whole way through and have lived or studied abroad. Their experiences really vary from staff member to staff member.
DB: Okay. How long does the visa work? Or, how long does it last?
EB: The international visa is initially, for the cultural exchange, for three years.
DB: Okay.
EB: Teachers are hired on a year to year contract, that’s all teachers in North Carolina. But international teachers, their written, legal contract is a year to year contract up to three years and then currently the State Department allows them to extend their visa on the cultural exchange program for an additional two years. After that potentially five year period, the expectation is that they return home to their country, to their home country and share all of the things that they learned while they were here with their colleagues and children and families in their home country. Some teachers seek to stay after that. The way the contract is written is the school districts aren’t allowed to then hire those people to stay because that would be in violation of the State Department. There are some districts across the United States that will sponsor their visa after and we try to, for people who do want to stay, funnel them to those different school districts if they choose to want to stay after that.
DB: Okay. You mentioned interpreters for meetings that might be in English or Spanish, but what other kinds of resources do you have for both students and teachers as a Dual Language School that other traditional schools might not need?
EB: For the teachers themselves or for-
DB: For students and teachers.
EB: For students, you know we have the resources that really any other school is going to have, we just might use them differently. For example, for students who are just learning Spanish, native English speakers who are learning Spanish, they don’t have additional services, they’re just immersed in the language. If they’re struggling or they’re not as successful as we’d like for them to be, then there are intervention services that are available for those students to support them in phonics, or in language development or vocabulary or comprehension, the same way that you would have in a monolingual English school. For a native Spanish speaking student, same thing is true. You have intervention support for those students. But for native Spanish speakers, they are required by the federal law to take a language assessment if the parents on their enrollment marked English as not their first language. They take an access test annually that measures their progression in English and then after they have, the expectation is that they would continue to grow in their English development every year in the school just like they would in a traditional English-only school. There are teachers that are allocated to the school that support them in their English language development. In most traditional schools, the ESL teacher, English as a Second Language teacher, supports students sometimes collaboratively in a classroom, in teaching them vocabulary or content ahead of time or while they’re learning it. They might pull students out of the classroom and do a small group for English language development based on their level of language learning. Here, ESL teachers really are collaborative co-teachers in the classroom. We don’t want students pulled out of their English language development. We want them to have that experience in the classroom so that ESL teacher is going to work closely with the English teachers in grades three, four, and five after home language literacy is well established in K-2. Once that literacy level is really established, we’re just making the transference into English at that point. The ESL teacher’s job is really to support those students in making the transition from everything they know how to do in Spanish into English. They do a lot more collaborative and co-teaching and then supporting with various language scaffolds for the English classroom. It could be in math, it could be in content areas through a project or it could be English language arts development. I’m trying to think of other resources that are available…here the pedagogical approach is really around language whether you’re learning in English or learning in Spanish.
DB: Mhm.
EB: Everything we do is based in language development, no matter which language you’re trying to learn. The way the teachers teach, everything they teach has a language objective to it, not just a content objective but how are we going to use the language with speaking, listening, reading, or writing to show our understanding of the content. Every teacher here is a language teacher, which could be different than a monolingual traditional school. Not all teachers here are certified as English language teachers but they’re certainly all expected to have those pedagogical resources and approaches to instruction. We do a lot of professional development and ( ) strategies and strategies that build comprehensibility as part of the instructional model, which might be different than a monolingual school. You could have monolingual schools that do that too but here that’s a necessity no matter what language you’re teaching in. Teachers also have access really to each other. So if I’m a monolingual English teacher in third grade and I need help writing a note to a parent, my teaching partner is a Spanish speaker. They’re going to help me write the note the same way I’m going to help my Spanish speaking teaching partner write the note to the parent in English, Or, I’m not quite sure how to say this in English will you read this email? So they have each other really to support one another. We also still have translators and interpreters that work with us through the central office of the school system. If we’re having a parent meeting and we feel like it’s more appropriate for somebody from the outside to offer an official interpretation of that meeting then we would have those available to us the same way though that monolingual schools would have. We do have resources and materials here that are in English and are in Spanish and then whatever materials and resources we use for instructional purposes, we really try to make sure that those fit in the Dual Language context. There aren’t resources that are written out, that are out there published for Dual Language context, there just really aren’t. There’s Spanish language arts programs there’s English language arts programs so you really have to take those programs and tailor them to meet the needs of students in a bilingual setting. For parents, our staff that supports parents are all bilingual so the social worker speaks to parents in English or in Spanish, depending on what they need. The counselor does, the school psychologist does, the receptionist, the bookkeepers that is going to take their money for a field trip, all of those people are bilingual.
DB: Mhm
EB: If you have a teaching assistant, for example, who was monolingual English speaking, then their counterpart in the other classroom is going to be bilingual and can come and provide that support to families. It doesn’t matter whether you speak English, whether you’re an English speaking or a Spanish speaker, whatever context you walk to in this school, somebody is going to be able to understand you and help you with what it is you need help with. We do offer some special supports for families here in the school. We have the series of language classes that are offered for parents, both English speakers and Spanish speakers. Our Spanish speaking families as they’re learning English, we actually collaborate with the university organization that offers those language classes and the children are getting special tutoring and games and things like that while their parents are here learning English. For our English speaking parents who want to learn Spanish to support their children in learning and also to communicate and build relationship with families who are native Spanish speakers, the school offers language classes taught by teachers here in the school. We generally, when we teach those language classes, try to pair up English speakers with Spanish speaking parents so that they can practice with each other. We try to do really practical things that we think parents are going to need, like how do you invite someone to a birthday party. And not only do we teach them the language they need for how do they invite someone to a birthday party, but also the cultural differences between our two groups. An English speaker’s birthday party, you’re probably going to arrive at 2 o’clock, drop them off, pick them up at 4 o’clock, you probably need to bring a gift, there’s probably going to be a cake, it looks like this. These are the games they’re probably going to play, this is what a traditional English speaker, American birthday party looks like, stereotypically. But if you go to a Spanish speaker’s birthday party, it’s probably going to look very different. It’s probably going to be a 1 o’clock to 9 o’clock at night and your whole family comes and it’s going to probably going to have several meals associated with it. The cake is going to look different, you’re probably going to play these games, you’re going to have…this is what you’d wear. These are kind of the things that you’re going to do. Helping families understand the difference so that when they engage in an experience that they…if their whole family is going to go, great, their whole family is welcome, but if their whole family is not going to, then here’s how to tell a Spanish speaking family I’m going to drop my son or daughter off and then I’ll be back at this time and this is what I’m going to do. That really helps families learn the language but also those cultural expectations that we think are important in trying to close that gap outside of the school setting for families as well. That was a lot. And then there are other education classes for families, but it’s really not necessarily based on Dual Language, it’s really based on the population that we have, like there is a pretty significant-it’s not significant but it’s significant enough that we do something about it-digital divide. There are computer classes that are offered for families who don’t have home technology, ( ) a strand in Spanish and so there’s an instructor that teaches in Spanish. They set up the laptops that are then going to be issued to these families in Spanish, so the keyboards and everything else. Talk to families the way that they need to and then we make sure that there is somebody available to support those families if they have tech needs after they take their computers home that can speak to them in their language that they understand. It’s not the “call the help” phone, that does not…we view that not as effective.
DB: Mhm
EB: There are other things that we’ve offered for both English and Spanish speaking families around mental health and mindfulness. Sometimes learning a second language can be really stressful for adults and for kids. If we know just by the nature of our program we have added additional stressors onto a child or family’s lives by learning another language at this age that we want to make sure that we’re countering that and teaching strategies for kids and parents to be more mindful or to access resources for maybe dealing with trauma that a family has experienced. I don’t know, that’s kind of it.
DB: Okay. I’m curious, I’ve been in a kindergarten classroom here this semester, and I’m pretty sure all of the books are in Spanish, but as they move through fifty/fifty classrooms, are the books fifty/fifty Spanish –
EB: Yeah.
DB: --How do you make sure that the kids are reading both?
R: Right.
DB: What is the allocation depending on the type of classroom that they’re in?
EB: If you’re in a fifty/fifty classroom, then the classroom library you’re going to have a section of the library that’s in English and a section of the library that’s in Spanish .If you’re in an Immersion classroom, the classroom library going to be in Spanish. Slowly as the years go on then you’ll add more and more English to that collection. The way the teachers ensure that students have the right books in their book box is when it’s time for independent reading the teacher will say you need to pick three books in Spanish and one book in English or you need to pick five books in Spanish or I’m going to give you these two books and you can have three books as a choice. When students go to the library, depending on their grade level, the librarian says this is your week to pick out books in Spanish, this is your week to pick out books in English. The curriculum itself really structures outside of that free reading time, or independent reading time, structures the language of reading and writing. For every student, they have two projects going on at one time. One is a social studies theme and one has a science theme. In the upper grades, for example in third grade, one of those is in English and one of those is in Spanish. In kindergarten, for example, both of those might be in Spanish if you’re in an Immersion class. If you’re in the upper grades and you’re looking at the fifty/fifty then your science project, for example, that’s in Spanish, you’re going to be learning about plants and growth and development and how plants have adapted over time and all of that reading, writing, background knowledge, science, all of that is going to be done in Spanish. The books that you have in your book box and the Spanish class are all in Spanish. Your writing journal, everything is all in Spanish. Everything in your google classroom, all in Spanish. The teacher’s lesson plans, videos, everything, all in Spanish. Because that is the language of instruction. But then when you go next door and you’re now learning about government of a town like Chapel Hill or Carrboro, that unit is taught all in English so you’re building background, your guest speakers, all the books that you’re going to read about government and how local government works and needs of citizens and citizenry; those kinds of things are all going to be done in English. The books in your box in English class are all going to be in English. When you’re in English class, you’re in English class. When you’re in Spanish class, you’re in Spanish. The teachers control for that. Kids every day are experiencing an area of the content in one language and all of their reading and writing about that content in that one language. At some point during the day they also have time for free reading and then the teacher is controlling for the types of books that they have available to them for the free reading part of it. If you’re in an Immersion class, we really are focusing on the development of Spanish language so we really want kids to accelerate and have their experience immersed in Spanish. In the early grades both of those units are going to be in Spanish. There will be a portion of the day that they spend in English language development and generally we’re focusing on things related to English language development that are going to be necessary foundational skills when they do begin to learn to read in English. Like, sight words. We don’t have sight words in Spanish but we have sight words in English. Phonics is what controls the ability for students to read in Spanish so all of our Spanish word study is going to be done in Spanish because that is such a heavy part of the Spanish language development. In English, we don’t want to introduce that at the same time because the vowels are different and that could be confusing so we try to make sure we really control for both of those.
DB: Yay, that’s perfect. The next part of the interview is going to be a little bit more about you and your life history since it is an oral history project and it’s about the interviewer, or, the interviewee as much as the topic. Could you just tell me a little bit about where you come from, how you really decided that you were going to dedicate your life to being a school principal at a Dual Language school?
EB: I was born in Virginia, but I’ve lived my entire life in central North Carolina, grew up in Winston Salem [interviewer mouthed “me too”] I went to—Did you?
DB: Mhm.
EB: I went to college at Wake Forest. I was kind of a hometown girl, not really ready to go away from home. Then I got my first teaching job, I moved to Alamance County, close to where I live now. I was just a traditional regular old teacher at a regular elementary school in a rural part of Alamance County for four years. Then I became a teacher here in Chapel Hill/Carrboro City Schools. That was probably my first introduction to language learners. I was at a school that had, not a high Asian population, but most of their English Language Learners were Asian, from different Asian countries. I probably had a third of my class that were not native English speakers and I’m like wow, what do I do with this as a teacher? I remember learning a lot about how to just make language come alive for children because it wasn’t going to be enough for me just to tell them. I needed to show them. I needed pictures. I needed acting out. I needed all those things that make language comprehensible.
From there, I went to another elementary school, had some language background. After that I went to the Central Office of the school system here in Chapel Hill/Carrboro. I was the Director of Elementary Instruction and Professional Development. I worked with all the elementary schools and that was before we had Dual Language programming here in Chapel Hill/Carrboro. I worked with schools on different things to help kids be successful and I think things that I learned about what good instruction was. A lot of it was about culture and about acceptance of the strengths that children and families bring to a school. It has nothing to do with Dual language but it certainly has to do with working with diverse population or populations that certainly look different than me and my background as a middle class privileged white woman. I also learned a lot about equity and how my privileges really can be used for good or evil and what I choose to do with them either can elevate the status and ensure the success of all children or it really can be damaging and continue to elevate the status and success of children and families who ( ) have been successful in public schools.
I think that through those years of working at Central Office, I continued to learn a lot about curriculum, instruction, equity, role of culture, language, all of that and what good teaching and learning look like. About the time, towards the end of my career at Central office, the community here in Chapel Hill/Carrboro had really an explosion of Spanish-speakers in Carrboro. They kept adding more and more ESL teachers to the elementary school. They were up to seven or eight ESL teachers to serve the numbers of students that they had there, which was crazy. They started looking at other options, and at that time the person who was in charge of that type of programming at the Central Office said well, there’s some research out there about Dual Language, let’s start a Dual Language program. I’m the Director of Elementary Instruction, she’s the person who is in charge of special populations, and I thought okay, well what do you want me to do and she said well there’s really not anything for you to do. So I really didn’t know anything about Dual Language when it started in the district even though I worked in the same office, set of offices, it was kind of like oh we’re going to have this special program. I knew there was, it was research based, I knew there are really great models, I knew that the success rate of Dual Language, 15 some years ago in our district, across the nation, had pockets of success but I didn’t really know the program. I was assigned to go to the school where Dual Language began. It was two years after the program had started. There was this Spanish speaking principal and I was assigned to be her assistant principal. I remember her saying well, you don’t speak Spanish so you don’t need to do anything with Dual Language, just go and do what you do. I did a lot of curriculum development, but I did a lot of support for new teachers in the Dual Language program. We would spend nights and weekends looking for materials and resources. My naïve self would say things like, well just translate it into Spanish, it’ll be fine, and say it a little louder kind of that old, not really old, but the misnomer that oh, just say it a little louder in the other language. I didn’t know, at that time you don’t know what you don’t know.
That principal went on and left the school system, I was named principal at Carrboro Elementary at the time. I still didn’t know a whole lot about Dual Language but knew I had this program in my school. Part of my learning and passion around Dual Language was really learning with those teachers, children, and families as they learned. We went to some specialized training with an organization out of Chicago where the teachers went and learned about pedagogy for Dual Language instruction and I really learned what was my role as principal and what is my role as a monolingual principal who has very little experience with Latino culture. I didn’t know anything. I remember thinking I’m really ill-equipped, maybe you need somebody else. But what I learned over time was that the pedagogical approach to Dual Language education and…there are national guiding principles that guide the work of Dual Language that are published by the Center of Applies Linguistics. I learned that those tools, just like any other quality school tools, had to be in place in a Dual Language program if we were going to have a quality Dual Language Program, then we needed to be following these guiding principles, we needed to be thinking about not only language and culture, but curriculum, instruction, assessment, advocacy, policy, resources, it wasn’t enough just to have translated materials. If lesson plans were in English, you should be teaching it in English, if lesson plans were in Spanish, you should be teaching in Spanish. At one point in time in the program all of the lesson plans were in English. And that was just because we didn’t know what we didn’t know. Over time, what I learned was boy, those classrooms come alive and about that same time my kids came through school at Carrboro Elementary and they were enrolled in Dual language and part of what I learned was how small my world really had been in my thirty five, thirty eight years of life by the time-really forty some years of life-my kids came to school. I had never really traveled, I hadn’t been anywhere, my cultural group of friends looked like I did, I just didn’t have lots of experiences. Not that I wasn’t accepting and wanted other people to feel comfortable with me and me to feel comfortable with other people, I just didn’t have a lot of experience. I knew when I thought about my own children, I didn’t want their lives to be as small as mine was.
I think every experience I had as a Dual Language leader...I remember vividly one time we were at a workshop and this was a workshop where you’re supposed to learn about Dual Language pedagogy and then come back and teach the people in your school district. They’re treating us as these experts and I’m like I’m not an expert in this. I remember thinking to myself, I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m in a room full of people who were bringing all this richness from their culture, background, language, and I don’t have any of that. I remember coming back, saying to my superintendent, I’m not sure I’m the right person to do this. I remember my superintendent saying, yes you are, keep doing this and it’s going to come alive for you. I remember thinking, okay, I’ll keep doing it. As I watched my own children go through the program, I learned a lot of things through their eyes. I learned a lot of things in working with my teachers and the parents of the school and at some point along the way, we added another strand of Dual Language, we added a pre-K program, we kept refining our program really based on what our data was saying, what families were telling us about their level of engagement or not engagement and continued trying to refine the approaches that we used in Dual Language. One of the things that I discovered along the way was that everything that I knew about teaching and learning, things that were just good for all kids about comprehensibility and culture and equity, all of those pieces were absolutely necessary in a Dual Language program or your program was not going to be successful. There’s no way you could make it successful unless you embedded all those pieces. I also knew that every year at Carrboro we had roughly one hundred kindergarteners and ninety to ninety-five of those kindergarten families wanted a seat in Dual Langue and I had a seat for fifty of them. We had a lot more demand than we had seats for. I remember really at that point in time, that being a big “aha” for me thinking, okay, well we could just expand our program. But we didn’t have enough Spanish speakers to fill. If I had, of those other fifty families who wanted a seat in Dual Language, ten of them may have been Spanish speakers and then other forty were English speakers so we could have had more of an immersion class designed for those English speakers. But then I started asking my colleagues and thinking to myself, what does it mean for Spanish speakers that are in other schools in our district? They don’t have access right now because at that time the only children who could access Dual Language were the children who lived in the attendance zone of the Dual Language schools. I remember thinking, well, gosh, that might be really terrible for families who are living in another zone who don’t even have the opportunity to come to this program, who can’t walk in the door and have everybody understands their language and somebody probably understands their culture. We started thinking about how to expand and what to do, much to the dismay of a lot of people in the public. The district decided they were going to have a full magnet school and it…I assumed as the principal at Carrboro that it would be at Carrboro Elementary. Carrboro has an enormous walk zone and not everybody at Carrboro wanted Dual Language and that was their choice. Some of it was because their native language was a different language other than English or Spanish and for other families they were just this isn’t for me or my kid. In respecting those families and what it was they were wanting out of their public education, the decision was made to have Dual Language at Frank Porter Graham. It doesn’t have a walk zone, the district was building a new elementary school at the time so it was a good time to be able to take the assigned population here at Frank Porter Graham, put them at the new elementary school and other elementary schools in the district and open this as a full magnet school. It also allowed another three hundred children to be served in Dual Language that weren’t currently being served, Spanish speaking children and English speaking children. It just allowed all those new seats to open up. That just felt like a huge victory and I know out Board of Education took a lot of heat over all the things that you hear about that are stereotypical of people in the community, of we should be English only, why are we creating a school just for those kids, kids whose families who don’t even pay taxes, all the ugly things that sometimes come out politically came out during this time. I know our Board took a lot of heat and I really feel the deciding factor for our Board of Education, there are a lot of researchers in the field of Dual Language.
But there were two researchers who have done, probably millions of now, students in their data set in proving that Dual Language works for English language learners, for children whose native language is another language other than English and how really it’s the only research based instructional program that closes the achievement gap by more than fifty percent. That’s looking at every other intervention you could possibly put in place for Spanish speakers. There are lots of other languages for Dual Language but I’m talking about specifically here for our program. I remember sitting with the Board of Education and Wayne and ( ) were there and they were talking about their research and why this was important and they were at a pivotal place as a school board and I remember them saying, how could you not give this to more children and families? It would be like having an immunization available that we know could cure the common cold or something like that, I don’t know anything about medicine. But you have an immunization and you’re only going to allow a hundred out of your eight hundred kids to have access to it. You’re going to give it to a hundred but you have the capacity to give it to five hundred. Why would you not give it to five hundred, why would you give something that you know is less effective for those children in combatting the common cold or measles or any other childhood disease, because you, it’s easier for you to give them, or not give them this other thing. I remember the Board saying, okay, it’s what research says we should be doing, let’s do it. They converted the school and it became the district magnet school and I was moved here to provide leadership for that. I remember thinking to myself, I probably could not have been more excited as the leader of a school. This was my opportunity to open a school that took everything I knew about good teaching and learning, culture, language, equity, everything. I was able to hire my own staff, so everybody who works here is committed to bilingual education. I’m no longer having to tell the story of why we exist. If you come here, you know why you exist, and if you come here and are not clear about why you exist, that doesn’t mean that you’re not a great teacher, you’re not a great student, you’re not a great family to have in the school, but if you’re not quite on board on why this school exists, then we’ll help you get to the school that is going to be right for you. We don’t judge you that way, it’s just that if you come here, this is what you come here to do. As there was a planning team for this school, people who came on board to try and help us figure out what does this looks like, how does this school have a global feel to it, how does this school really ensure that all families feel connected here. How do we deal with this notion of not everybody has to be bilingual to be an advocate for bilingual education. I’m a monolingual principal, I have great receptive Spanish skills that I have learned in the last fifteen years, but boy I am not bilingual. If you listen to me speak in Spanish, you’re going be like, oh, that hurts my ears so bad. Please don’t do it. I know that that’s just not a skill set that I obtained, but I have figured out a way to use my white privilege to advance pedagogical approaches in a school setting like ours that really does elevate the status of language and culture and closes the achievement gap.
I think it’s wonderful that all children here become bilingual, biliterate, they develop cross cultural confidence, but our school exists because we want to close the gap. We want the children who are least successful in our public schools to be just as successful and have the same opportunities as every other child. When I have to make decisions about a Girls on the Run and whether only paid girls get a spot versus us making sure that the team is half English speakers half Spanish speakers, and I’m having lots of heat from privileged white parents saying I want my seat on Girls on the Run, how dare you leave a spot for those girls. That drives me nuts! So I know that every decision I make, I’m constantly thinking about elevating the status of Spanish language, culture, and our least successful family in traditional education who needs someone to speak for them. I’m not trying to demean families because families have a powerful voice, but there are places and times where those families don’t feel like they know where their voice fits. I’m not an expert in doing any of that, but I do know that I’ve surrounded myself with people that do hear families’ voices and can then say, Emily this is what you need to do. Okay, I’m going to get it done. Whatever barrier put in our place to say that this can’t happen I’m going to tell you that it can. For example, someone said well, there’s no way that you’ll have enough funding and time and capacity to offer a built in after school tutoring program in both English and Spanish. I said, oh yeah we will. When the school opened, we staggered people’s work times. We said, you’re going to work from these hours to these hours, which is a traditional elementary day, but this staff during these periods of time, to offer free tutoring to our kids and families, you’re working these hours. It didn’t cost any more money, it just required us all to make a shift so that you had to compensate when people weren’t there in the morning to provide the afternoon support.
We also added a summer program because we saw that there were lots of English speakers in the summer who would have Spanish drop and Spanish speakers who were not engaged in opportunities over the summer so we figured out a way to offer eight full weeks of full day summer programming that’s not like school but is sort of like school. If you need advanced teaching, you’re getting advanced teaching. If you just need continued time in Spanish, you’re getting continued timed in Spanish and you’re getting a lot of recreation too. You don’t, I know that in my earlier career when you would go to summer school for example, or you would go to at risk programs, they were racially identifiable. They were black and brown children. They were children who were living in poverty. When you come to our summer program, or our after school program, it is not racially identifiable, it is not socioeconomically identifiable, it is just kids at FPG. I guess that that’s really made me passionate because I see that it works and I see that again I recognize that my place in the world is still very very small but that opportunities that I have in trying to make sure that every child is successful I feel like I’ve been able to actualize in a school that’s like this and I feel like that’s just a huge gift to me and really my educational career. It’s been exciting.
DB: That’s awesome.
EB: That was a really long answer, I’m sorry.
DB: No you’re fine. I have one more question for you. You kind of brought it up already, you were talking about the achievement gap and how Dual Language schools have research that proves that the kids have higher proficiency levels, so I was wondering how proficiency levels are measured? Is it standardized testing, is it other stuff, and how…if you have any knowledge of whether your kids that graduate from FPG continue to have higher achievement in middle and high school and college?
EB: Right. Traditionally North Carolina student’s proficiency is measured on an End of Grade test, which are English only measured in third through eighth grade and then there are high school exams as well. For us, that’s third, fourth, and fifth grade English and math exams and then in fifth grade a science exam. I feel like proficiency, that’s one measure of proficiency. We also track lots of other measures of proficiency. There are English reading assessment measures that we do here in the school that are more one on one assessments with the child and the teacher, with a writing sample that are probably are much more indicative of a child’s actual reading ability than just a standardized test score. We track that progress in both English and Spanish every year children are in school. We also are tracking their language development using those measures that are required by the federal government, the access testing if you’re an English speaker. We also measure at the end of the elementary school experiences their Spanish language proficiency levels in speaking, listening, reading, and writing, just to ensure our student…we think that the measuring of proficiency in both languages is equally important. The EOG is what gets reported by the state, and what’s important to I guess powers that be, so to speak, but I think it’s important to show the whole picture of what kids can really do. Part of what that has shown us over time is that, for example, in third grade when children begin to make the transition to English reading, much more heavy emphasis on English reading...when you are in K-2 you’re really learning how to read. When you’re in third, fourth, and fifth grade, you’re really reading to learn, reading for information. From there on, that’s all you’re reading for. Nobody goes back and teaches you how to read again, you just are expected to read for information, whether that’s in science, social studies, language arts, whatever subject you’re now reading to learn.
In the early grades when we teach kids how to read, they learn how to read in Spanish because it’s very controlled, it’s phonetically based, there aren’t all these weird words like English has. Kids learn how to read so we know that when kids leave second grade, their Spanish proficiency levels show they are readers, probably ninety percent of the kids can read on grade level, whether you’re a native English speaking, an native Spanish speaker, whether you’re rich, whether you’re poor, whether you’re an English language learner, or you’re special education, black, white, Asian, multiracial, doesn’t matter. Ninety percent of those kids are reading on grade level in Spanish. When they make the transition to English they don’t learn to read again. They simply transfer their reading skills they have into English. If you’re a native English speaker, logic would say that you’re probably going to make that jump a lot easier because you have language, and fluency and comprehension and oral comprehension, those other things going for you that as a native Spanish speaker you might not have. It might take you a little longer. What we see in proficiency is really a depression in proficiency in third that rises in fourth and then shoots off at fifth for every subgroup, which I think is normal given the trajectory of how kids learn. While they’re doing that though, in English, on these measures of reading, and I’m talking about the measures that are done one on one with the teacher that are probably a better measure of the actual reading ability, they’re maintaining their proficiency in Spanish. They don’t lose that, and we don’t move to English. They still read and write in Spanish every day through that Spanish project. They’re still getting reading instruction in Spanish every day. But as they’re accessing now English reading instruction, they’re building that over time so that they then can demonstrate their proficiency in English reading. As they build their proficiency in English reading what we see on those other measures of what we would call informal reading proficiency, kids can read. They’re transferring those skills from Spanish reading into English reading and English reading into Spanish reading. They’re proficient readers.
What we see, though, is that it takes a little longer for your proficiency in reading to show up on standardized tests. That could be for a lot of reasons. It could be cultural bias in the test, it could be stamina of having to read eight passages over a four hour period and you’re eight, it could be vocabulary and nuances of vocabulary because at least one of those eight passages is going to be poetry that’s really really hard. There are just different pieces that don’t allow kids to demonstrate as much proficiency as we know they have in reading with the standardized test measure. By the time they’re in fifth grade, we’re slowly starting to see that gap close and close and close. That’s what national research would tell us about Dual Language pedagogy is that by the time they’re in middle school, high school, their proficiency levels in English have exceeded their counterparts no matter what subgroup you’re in compared to if you were in a monolingual learning experience K to eight or K to twelve. Our data looks exactly like what the national data looks like and why I think that’s important as a principal is that when someone says, well, your test scores are low in third grade reading, those bad teachers, they must not be doing what they’re supposed to do, what are you going to do to help fix this? I’m able to say we don’t have a reading problem. Here are our reading proficiency scores in English. Here’s our reading proficiency scores in Spanish, and here’s what we’re doing to intervene for each of these children. These children are proficient readers in Spanish, but they’re not quite on grade level in English so here’s what we’re doing to support them. These are kids who are not proficient in their native language of Spanish, and they’re definitely not proficient readers in their native language of English, they need reading help and they probably need reading help in their native language first. Or here are proficient readers in English but not proficient readers in Spanish, they need Spanish language help. How do we help them? Then we’re able to better target the kind of support that we provide to kids and families and talk about what we’re doing to continue to close that achievement gap.
Now what that looks like for data in middle school and high school, we, to my knowledge and I don’t have access to middle or high school data personally, so the only data that I know that has been analyzed at this point is data that’s been analyzed by the Department of Public Instruction that has taken data from our elementary and middles school programs along with other Dual Language programs in the state of North Carolina and that research is on the DPI website. It shows what the rest of the national research is kind of a replicated study in North Carolina with our population of students. Not Chapel Hill/Carrboro students are not pulled out separately so I can’t speak specifically to Chapel Hill/Carrboro success but I know that in that aggregate of other Dual Language programs the data is the same. After, when you get to middle and high school, do you begin to reap the benefits of those very high proficiency levels no matter where you started. I think the other piece, though, that is often not measured, or really two things. One is that for some students this may be the only access that they have to an AP class, an honors class, an advanced class. If they’re a native speaker and they’ve maintained language proficiency in Spanish through biliteracy, when they get to high school, they’re taking AP Spanish, they’re taking AP Spanish literature, they’re going to knock at least those two credits out when they might not if they had been in a monolingual school, might not have maintained that biliteracy and wouldn’t have access to advanced world language even though they’re a native speaker of the language.
DB: Mhm
EB: The other part that I think is far more important is when students are able to maintain their language, which is a huge part of culture, I think that as public schools we send a message that all language and culture is valued and that that strength of what your family brings to the table is valued, too. I think that all too often public education looks like middle class white America and that’s kind of the model it’s built on. That is not representative of at least half the school that I serve. If I were to impose my middle class white values and say well that parent doesn’t care about their child’s education because they don’t read every night at home, I’ve missed a huge part of what they do bring to the table. I think by maintaining language and culture and importance of family, you then deal with other challenges of just growing up. If I maintain my language I’m now able to engage in an in depth conversation with my parents about drugs, sex, college, getting a job, how to manage my finances. If I became, if I went through an English only track, I probably can still orally communicate with my parents, but I may not be able to have that in depth conversation and my parents need to go somewhere else for help. Then, they’re relying on a translator or they’re relying on me as a teenager to translate for them.
DB: Mhm
EB: Everything we know about the strength of the family unit has now been eroded because you took the hierarchy of that family unit, usually the mother or the father, out of the equation and elevated the status of the child. Not that children aren’t important, but that’s not what the family unit is in many of our Spanish speaking families. You just then put a child now in charge of their family. I know that’s just how it works in some places, that’s the way it is, but I think that sometimes you see by not maintaining that language and culture, that the root notion of family, families will say, my older children who didn’t go through Dual Language, they don’t speak Spanish anymore, they all go to English. Parents are proud of that and their kids are getting jobs and going to college and all these other things, but there’s a missing piece to that. They want to go home and visit their grandparents in Guatemala, then they go but they don’t connect anymore so then you create a generation of kids that, they don’t know where they fit. They’re English speakers, but they’re still Latino, or they’re still…it just created a cultural dissonance that doesn’t really build on the richness that all families and cultures bring to school communities. I think that’s really important and I think that’s something that’s not really measured in school, nobody talking about that. We talk about cross cultural competence and acceptance and respect for other cultures, but you’re not talking about really the value system that cultures bring and why that’s so important in a variety of cultural units. I think that’s super important.
DB: Mhm.
EB: And we don’t measure that so I don’t have data for you for proficiency of that.
DB: That’s okay. Well, thank you, that’s all the time we have but thank you so much for doing this interview for me.
EB: Sure.