Surge in multilingual learners impacts city

Posted 10/19/23

Tiffany Beltran believes in “bite-sized” professional development for Warwick teachers to understand how to instruct a growing enrollment of students who speak a language other than …

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Surge in multilingual learners impacts city


Tiffany Beltran believes in “bite-sized” professional development for Warwick teachers to understand how to instruct a growing enrollment of students who speak a language other than English. Beltram points to the increase in Warwick multilingual learners (MLL) that numbered 210 at the beginning of the school year and is expected to increase as the year progresses. She notes in 1992, with more than twice the current district enrollment of 8,300, there were 46 MLLs. 

The trend is not limited to Warwick

According to a Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council report released last week, the state’s MLL student body swelled 9,372 to 15,260 students in the past eight years (a 62.8 percent increase, 2015-2023). Overall, 12.5 percent of the state’s public school students classify as MLL (up from 7.2 percent in 2015).

“People who move to Rhode Island realize Warwick is a safe city and want to raise their children here,” she said. She said Warwick schools, the city’s location in the center of the state, jobs and housing also play roles in attracting families.

Up until this year, the district had a part time MLL coach and coordinator. Prior to coming to Warwick four years ago, Bertran worked in a number of positions including a six year stint as a MLL instructional coach at Roger Williams University, five years as a MLL coach and English as a second language teacher in Providence schools. In Warwick she taught for two years and coached another two.

She points out some MLL students were born in this country but were raised speaking the native language of their parents and don’t know English.

Preparing teachers

Beltran aims to make it easier for teachers to instruct MLL students by providing them with the tools to communicate and build student confidence so they learn and are active members of the school community. Some teachers may speak a foreign language, which naturally is a huge asset. More likely teachers will need to turn to Google Translator. She suggests foreign language students be paired so they have a buddy that can build confidence and self-esteem and she urges teachers to recognize the students could be coming from different school environments with different rules. She pointed out that students here are expected to raise their hand in order to use the restroom, whereas in other countries they simply leave the classroom. MLL students may also be at a loss and even panic when the school conducts a fire drill or a practice lock down.

Beltran’s “bite sized” approach to coaching Warwick teachers includes a quick read of the numbers for an overview of the situation in addition to coaching so in the long run they are “empowered to work with students who don’t speak English.” She is also working one-on-one with teachers in their classrooms. She calls students “some of our best teachers” as by working with them, teachers learn what works.

90 percent of MLL students concentrated in 10 districts

More than 90 percent of all MLL attend schools in just 10 Ocean State school districts, according to RIPEC.

This year, the Central Falls School District made state history, officially becoming the first district in Rhode Island “with more than half its students classified as multilingual learners,” according to an October the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC) report.

The vast majority of the state’s MLL speak Spanish at home (80.1 percent) — Creole and Pidgin (4.2 percent), Portuguese (2.6 percent), Arabic (1.3 percent) and Chinese (1 percent). Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) reports 142 different languages spoken in the homes of Rhode Island’s MLL students.

Beltran said In Warwick schools students speak 30 different languages. Of Warwick’s 210 MLL students, 52.3 percent speak Spanish. She said many of these students are from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. The next largest group of MLL students speak Arabic at 6.7 percent, followed by Chinese at 5.7 percent and Haitian Creole 4.8 percent.

In an interview last week, State Rep. Enrique Sanchez (D-Dist. 9, Providence) said, “Every day, many people arrive from many countries around the world.” He rattled off a long list of countries and continents, like Ukraine, Asia and Africa. “The more students there are, it becomes more and more work for the school district and RIDE to address.”

Johnston State Rep. Deb Fellela, who was also interviewed for this story amplified the call for more educators, but acknowledged the challenges inherent in asking seasoned educators to go back to school to learn a new language.

“Right now we see a lot of graduates not going into the education field,” Fellela said. “As I've seen in Providence the administration is requiring that teachers have that degree to teach those students. Maybe an incentive for college students going into teaching if they would consider getting MLL certified with either a stipend or something that will attract folks to this field once again. That is difficult as a teacher may be close to retirement and now, she is mandated to go back to get that degree and is burdened with the cost associated with taking courses.

Beltran doesn’t see teachers learning foreign languages as a panacea. Rather, she said, teachers should be teaching MLL students to speak English. She’s receptive to community assistance to those speaking foreign languages, urging they contact Volunteers of Warwick Schools (VOWS) that has an understanding of where assistance would be helpful.

MLL student test scores are low

RIPEC also looked at the performance of MLL students.

Test scores show 60 percent of the Ocean State’s MLL students were below basic math proficiency and 71 percent fell below reading proficiency standards. The proficiency gap in exhibited by eighth grade data shows similar trends, both trailing the nation by about 12 percent.

According to RIDE report cards, South Kingstown schools are beating the trend, their MLL students scoring 51.1 percent proficient in reading (the only district majority proficient). Near the middle of the pack, Johnston schools are only reporting 9.2 percent reading proficiency among the district’s MLL population. Central Falls fell to the bottom of the chart, with only 1.2 percent of MLL students reading proficient.

Coventry topped the state’s math proficiency (for its MLL population), with 50 percent (the only district reaching the halfway mark).

“I have proposed legislation for the past several years that would create ‘Language Academies’ as a language-proficiency element to our public schools,” explained House Minority Leader, state Rep. Mike Chippendale. “In short, a child not proficient in English would be taught in the standard educational curriculum, but in a separate classroom or building where immersive language learning would occur while still encompassing the other classroom subjects.”

Chippendale serves as an Ex-Officio member of all House Committees and represents District 40, which includes Coventry, Foster and Glocester.

“Once a child tests proficient in English, they would simply matriculate back into the classroom or school that they would ordinarily attend,” he said. “This model has been successful across Canada, in New York City, and in several other US States and is extremely beneficial to the child that lacks the language skills, and the rest of the student body as a whole because the language barrier and the accompanying communication issues are removed from the classroom setting.”

According to RIPEC, “other districts have seen fast growth in the number of (MLL) since 2015, including Cumberland, East Providence, Johnston, Newport, North Providence, and Warwick. Collectively, they saw their numbers nearly triple, from 656 to 1,763 between 2015 and 2023 and these districts now make-up 11.6 percent of all multilingual learners in the state”

Warwick Schools’ MLL students reached 7.8 percent proficient reading proficient and 9 percent math proficient. Cranston Schools’ MLL population hit 7.3 percent reading proficient and 9.1 percent math proficient. Both city school districts lingered in the bottom half of the state’s public rankings for MLL performance.

“Rhode Island’s most recent state assessments similarly show that multilingual learners are failing to meet or exceed expectations in math or reading in alarming numbers,” according to RIPEC, basing their conclusions on data provided within RIDE Report Cards.

Beltran believes with students back in classrooms scores will show improvements. She is encouraged by the commitment the district has made to MLL with her full time devotion to students and coaching teachers to the i-Ready online curriculum program that adjusts instruction to a student’s capabilities.

“The administration and staff are pretty amazing. I’m so glad to be a part of a position change here,” she said.

multilingual, language, schools


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