Immersed in language

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  • Joseph Metcalf Elementary School pre-school teacher Maria Roldan leads a lesson in Spanish as part of the regular curriculum at the exclusively dual language school in Holyoke on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Joseph Metcalf Elementary School fourth grade teacher Eliza Maugh-Pugh leads a geography lesson in Spanish for students Ryan Greaney, left, Lilliana Gonzalez and Aidan Fairlie at the exclusively dual language school in Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Joseph Metcalf Elementary School fourth grader Grace Sherman dons headphones to work in a Spanish language program at the exclusively dual language school in Holyoke on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Joseph Metcalf Elementary School Principal Amy Burke was tapped to implement the English/Spanish dual language program at the Holyoke school beginning with the kindergarten classes of 2014. Now in its sixth year, the program encompasses the entire student body, pre-K through grade five. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Joseph Metcalf Elementary School fourth graders Jeyden Luna Burgos, left, and Chris Davila use headphones to access a Spanish language program while their teacher, Eliza Maugh-Pugh, in the background, leads a geography lesson in Spanish at the exclusively dual language school in Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Joseph Metcalf Elementary School preschoolers Mason Gonzalez, left, and Isaac Real-Rincon dance to a song sung in both Spanish and English by their teacher, Maria Roldan, as part of the regular curriculum at the exclusively dual language school in Holyoke on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. The room's carpet is illustrated with colors, numbers and everyday items labeled in both languages. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Joseph Metcalf Elementary School fourth grade teacher Eliza Maugh-Pugh leads a lesson taught in Spanish at the exclusively dual language school in Holyoke on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Joseph Metcalf Elementary School teacher Maria Roldan helps her preschool student Robert Kennedy take part in an activity. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Joseph Metcalf Elementary School fourth grade teacher Eliza Maugh-Pugh leads a geography lesson in Spanish for four of her students at the exclusively dual language school in Holyoke on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Joseph Metcalf Elementary School preschooler Mason Gonzalez dances to a song sung in both Spanish and English by teacher Maria Roldan as part of the regular curriculum at the exclusively dual language school in Holyoke on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. The room's carpet is illustrated with colors, numbers and everyday items labeled in both languages.

Staff Writer
Published: 12/11/2019 9:17:11 AM

In Maria Roldan’s preschool class at Joseph Metcalf Elementary School, students were buzzing with excitement on Friday as Roldan — wearing a flower necklace — sang a familiar holiday song.

“Oh, dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of clay,” she sang, strumming her guitar as the children sat around her with rapt attention. And then, removing the necklace, she switched to Spanish.

“Mira aquí, lo tenemos … Es un juguete para los niños que celebran Janucá,” she said, picking up the dreidel. Translation: “Look here, we have one … It’s a toy for children who celebrate Hanukkah.” Then she picked up the guitar and sang again:

“Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, te hice de barro,” she sang in Spanish as the children danced around.

Roldan’s classroom is no different than any other class in the preschool-through-grade 5 Holyoke school, where all grades are taught bilingually in English and Spanish. Beginning with just preschoolers in 2014, Metcalf has expanded its dual-language program grade by grade until this year, when every student in the building is learning both languages all year long.

That’s been important to Holyoke, where 22 percent of students speak a native language other than English, a cohort of students known as “English-language learners” in the education world.

“When this opportunity was brought to Metcalf, it was really based off of parent interest,” Principal Amy Burke said. As the program has expanded, Burke said it has improved test scores, helped English-language learners feel more included and has led to social-emotional and academic growth for students. “It has been absolutely mind-blowing.”

Metcalf’s dual-language program is one of two in the district, the other being an optional track families can choose at E. N. White Elementary School. And Holyoke’s recent successes have inspired other educators in the region. In Amherst, which like Holyoke has a large Spanish-speaking population, students at Fort River Elementary School can for the first time this year participate in a dual-language program in English and Spanish.

In Amherst, 16 percent of students are English-language learners, according to state education department data.

There has been an explosion of interest in dual-language programs after the state passed a law known as the LOOK Act in 2017, which gives districts more flexibility in the language-acquisition programs they implement for English-language learners. There are now programs in the state for a number of languages, including Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin, French and Haitian Creole.

Among other things, the law required districts with large populations of students learning English in addition to their native language to create English Learner Parent Advisory Councils; created licensure endorsements for various language acquisition programs, like dual-language; and establishes as state Seal of Biliteracy, which districts can award to students who attain a high level of proficiency in English and another language.

A 2002 state ballot initiative had effectively ended bilingual education for English-language learners in many Massachusetts public schools. The LOOK Act repealed that controversial law, known as “Sheltered English Immersion,” which required English-only instruction except under a set of limited exceptions.

“Essentially, they were discouraging any bilingual programming,” said Phyllis Hardy, the executive director of the Multistate Association for Bilingual Education, Northeast, or MABE. “What the LOOK Act did is take away all those restrictions for that type of programming.”

Since the LOOK Act’s implementation in 2017, dual-language programs have flourished. Hardy said that in the state, there are a handful of districts — in Lynn, Salem, Hudson, New Bedford, Fall River and Springfield — that are either working to open a new dual-language program or have just done so.

“I think a big piece of the push is that the education department found some grant funds to support districts in these planning stages,” Hardy said.

There is certainly plenty of planning that goes into implementing a dual-language program: overhauling curriculum, hiring staff and figuring out logistics like school choice and busing, to name just a few challenges.

Amherst recently experienced many of those hurdles as they talked about and planned their dual-language program over the past two years, beginning with a program inside Fort River this year.

Katie Richardson coordinates English-language learner programming in the district, which means she has also become the coordinator of the dual-language program. She said all of that work and preparation has laid a foundation for a program that is succeeding in all the ways educators there had hoped it would.

“I think coming into the school year there was a lot to do with a new curriculum, a new program and new staff,” Richardson said. “Despite all those challenges, it’s really exciting.”

Richardson said that the benefits of the program are many. For one, students are quickly picking up another language — or, in the case of students who have a background in both languages, are able to be peer mentors in their classrooms.

What’s more, Richardson said that the dual-language program makes the district more inclusive of families who don’t speak English as a first language. Those who speak Spanish can see their cultures and language celebrated; and, by being thrown into an unfamiliar language, those who speak English can develop empathy with their peers who are learning English for the first time.

One parent of a student in Amherst’s dual-language program, Zoraia Barros, praised the unique experience her daughter is having. In an interview for the district’s “A Window into ARPS” series, she said that her husband is from Puerto Rico and speaks Spanish at home.

“For us, it was a wonderful opportunity to have the continuation of what we did at home,” Barros said. And in addition to the vocabulary, Barros — who is Brazilian and speaks Portuguese — praised the cultural knowledge her daughter brings home every day. “For my daughter to come home singing songs I’ve never heard before, and all the culture that comes with the language, that’s priceless.”

“It really is about recognizing and honoring the diverse cultures that our students bring,” said Michael Morris, the district’s superintendent.

Morris praised the support of MABE, and recently did a site visit and is preparing a program review for the district. He said the organization has proved an invaluable resource as the district rolls out their dual-language program. Morris also said there has been more demand for the program than there are seats — something Metcalf in Holyoke also has experienced.

And perhaps more importantly, he said many district students with Spanish-language backgrounds are choosing the program. Because of discrimination parents might have faced as an English-learner, he said there was concern that some of those families would favor an English-only program so that their children didn’t have those same experiences.

“We want to be true to our values,” Morris said. He said the district wants the program to be 50 percent English-speakers and 50 percent students who speak some Spanish. “That involves very direct outreach to Spanish-speaking populations.”

Holyoke, too, is hoping to expand its program to more schools in the district with large populations of English-language learners. And as Metcalf’s students who began the program in 2014 near graduation from the school, the district is now looking at expansion to the secondary level.

The language abilities of those students who have been in the program for several years are evident.

In Eliza Maugh-Pugh’s fourth-grade classroom in Metcalf, students on Friday were learning in different “centers.” Some of them worked on computers with a Spanish-language literacy program while others sat together at a table with Maugh-Pugh.

“Aquí tenemos dos continentes, ¿no?” Maugh-Pugh said, encouraging her students to explain the difference between a country and a continent.

The students shared their thoughts in Spanish, talking through how to identify a country on the maps in front of them. Spanish-language words covered the walls around the classroom, dealing with subjects from math to Spanish-language arts. Hanging large on one wall was a sign evidently created by students:

“Trata algo,” it read in Spanish. Translation: “Try something.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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