Minnesota surge in bilingual students calling for teaching shift

/ 12 April 2014 / eunice

Christopher Magan, Pioneer Press, April 12, 2014 – Spanish teacher Javier Blazquez was tired of seeing Hispanic students’ bilingual abilities languish, so he found a way to challenge them.

The Burnsville High School instructor created his Spanish-for-native-speakers class for those students who grew up speaking the language at home with the aim of improving their writing and grammar skills.

“All these kids were taking Spanish I or Spanish II, and it is such a waste for them to spend time on things like vocabulary they already know,” Blazquez said. “What I’m trying to get for them is the ability to read and write Spanish well because it will help them in their future careers.”

His class is the latest example of how educators across Minnesota are trying to better serve growing diverse student populations.

Burnsville has seen the diversity of its students change rapidly over the last decade and now more than 40 percent are minorities. Spanish speaking students are the district’s largest group with 1,200 students who have it as their native language or the one spoken at home.

In the past two decades, Minnesota has seen the number of students who are non-native English speakers jump 300 percent, to 65,000 students.

State Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, sponsored legislation included in the latest education policy bill that would overhaul how multilingual students are taught. The changes include better training for teachers, more oversight of school programs for non-native English speakers and targeted instructional services for students from preschool through adulthood.

Implementing these changes would cost about $6 million annually, according to House research.

“Minnesota stands to benefit from growing our pool of multilingual workers,” Mariani said after the bill was passed out of the House Education Policy Committee he chairs. “I think it’s essential if we want to compete in a global economy.”

All of Blazquez’s 28 students come from families where Spanish is the first language of one or both parents.

He hopes to add a more advanced class next year so students eventually can earn college credit for their foreign language skills while still in high school.

“I teach them what they also learn in English classes,” Blazquez said. “Things like literature and poetry. I want them to be able to use it formally.”

Last week, Blazquez moved quickly around his classroom, quizzing students as they discussed concepts such as antonyms, synonyms and double negatives.

Blazquez teaches from a podium on wheels that drifts around the room. On its front is a sign that reads “Me gusta bailar,” or “I like to dance.”

“I’m goofy. I sing, I dance, I do anything to keep their attention,” he said.

His course has drawn the interest of students such as Patricia Roldan, an 11th-grader whose family is from Mexico.

“I’m pretty good at Spanish. I want to be perfect,” said Roldan, who has encouraged her mother to take English classes because “I’m not always going to be around to help her.”

Alexis Becerra, a 10th- grader whose father is from Mexico, grew up speaking Spanish at home but never learned to write it. Becerra hopes to one day use his language skills to land a job.

“My mom told me it would be good to learn and use because you can find a job if you’re fluent,” he said.

Blazquez’s class is about more than improving Spanish language skills; he believes improving students’ native language will boost their academic achievement in other subjects.

That is an important concept in the changes Mariani hopes to make in the way Minnesota educates students who are multilingual or learning English. The education policy bill it is included in passed the House and is expected to be taken up by the Senate later this month.

“It’s a pretty big, big change,” Mariani said. “Basically, at its core, it is the state’s (English learners) instruction to be done in such a way that lifts up and takes advantage of the home language of the student. At the core is the expectation the home language is an asset, a powerful asset.”

The change in approach is important if Minnesota is going to close its achievement gap between minority and poor students and their peers, Mariani said. Last year, just 59 percent of English learners graduated from high school statewide, and those students had significantly lower scores on state proficiency tests.

“They’re the fastest-growing population of students in our schools, yet nearly half do not graduate high school,” Mariani said. “We can’t afford to let Minnesota’s English language learners fall behind. These students bring unique skills to the table.”

Like many districts, Burnsville is working to improve its instruction for English language learners and multilingual students. In 2012, a state review showed steep declines in graduation rates for non-native English speakers and problems identifying and delivering services to those students.

When Superintendent Joe Gothard came to Burnsville last year he said he planned to focus on the community’s growing diversity as an asset. That includes expanding programs for students who are not native English speakers and providing new resources for their teachers.

Last year, the district launched a community- education program to help multilingual adults improve their English skills so they could work as classroom aides and teaching assistants.

“Learning is really based on prior knowledge. Any opportunity we have to deepen and enhance a student’s prior knowledge is a golden opportunity,” Gothard said. “We want to make sure we are serving every student to the best of our ability in Burnsville-Eagan-Savage.”

There are enough Hispanic students at Burnsville High School that Blazquez believes he could teach his Spanish-for-native-speakers class full time. He admitted to having a lot invested in seeing those students succeed.

“I can go home and be very happy because of what I did for them,” Blazquez said. “And I can be really crabby because they make me crazy sometimes. They’re like my kids.”