Despite Mistral Elementary's promise of dual literacy, some of its most vulnerable students are struggling to learn English and meet state academic standards. School district leaders say that needs to change.
Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph announced at a school board meeting this month that starting this fall, the Mountain View Whisman School District will start an overhaul of the Dual Immersion program. It will include changing the basic format of how kids learn Spanish and English, ditching its math curriculum and working to extend the dual-language program beyond fifth grade and into middle school.
The bilingual program draws children from all over the district, but Rudolph said the program has been inequitable for more than a decade. Kids who speak English going into the program are doing great in school and outscoring their peers, while children from Spanish-speaking families who don't speak English as a first language are struggling to keep up, according to the district's analysis.
A growing body of evidence has found that dual immersion, when implemented right, helps kids from both groups excel on standardized tests, but that hasn't been the case in Mountain View, Rudolph said. He pointed to a study last year that concluded kids going into the program not speaking English are not seeing any of the purported benefits in middle school or high school. This has been the case for the Dual Immersion program going back to 2008, according to the study.
"The English-only students are learning Spanish off of the backs of the English language learners," Rudolph said. "That was what was found. It was not published, but that was explicitly stated."
The study itself is nuanced and has plenty of caveats about statistical significance, essentially saying English learners who attend the district's Dual Immersion program don't do that much better or worse than kids from other schools. But given the potential, well-documented benefits of dual-language programs as a tool to close the achievement gap, Rudolph told board members that Mistral is falling short of expectations.
In order to root out problems and come up with a plan of action, the district put together an all-staff committee that included Mistral teachers last fall. The group zeroed in on one central point: Native Spanish speakers aren't learning English at a fast enough rate, and it's putting them at a disadvantage. Unlike other dual-language programs that teach English and Spanish in equal amounts each year, Mistral uses what's called a "90/10" model that teaches kindergarten students mostly in Spanish, adding more English instruction in each subsequent grade, ending elementary school with 50/50 instruction. That means students seeking to learn English wait years before getting direct instruction in English reading and writing.
"The problem at Mistral currently is that in the earlier grades we are not teaching (English) writing and reading until third grade," said Mistral principal Tabitha Miller.
It doesn't come as a surprise, then, that the rate at which Mistral's English learner students "reclassify" as fluent lags behind other schools in the district. Only six of the 152 students in the district who reclassified this year were from Mistral, putting it dead last.
"When you've got all those skills that have to be kind of crammed into third grade, I think that's caused a real problem with us being able to reclassify students at an earlier grade level and more effectively at later grade levels," Miller said.
The committee recommended rapid change, converting the program to a so-called "50/50" model equally split between English and Spanish instruction from kindergarten on for the 2019-20 school year. Other changes include switching the math curriculum from GoMath to Eureka Math, which is used in every other district school, and regular testing in English and Spanish to ensure students are on track in both languages.
Brenda Jarillo-Rabling, a fifth-grade teacher at Mistral, said the proposed changes would put Dual Immersion on the right track, and that there is strong evidence that an even-handed approach to teaching Spanish and English would support every student at the school. While the district's own study found plenty of evidence that the 90/10 model can also be effective -- and states plainly that both work if done right -- Jarillo-Rabling said the status quo isn't working for Spanish-speaking families.
"The 90/10 model is not necessarily translating into success for all students," she said.
Parent Imelda Moreno, speaking to the board through a translator, said it's difficult for Latino parents in the district to wait until fourth and fifth grade for their child to reclassify as fluent in English, and that many remain English learners into middle school.
When the topic of revamping Dual Immersion came up last year, some Mistral parents argued that the data was too old and too inconclusive to warrant big changes, and that deficiencies in test scores and GPAs could be attributed to other challenges the school has faced. Dual Immersion has gone through a number of leadership changes and went from being a choice program within Castro Elementary to a stand-alone school in 2015. Many of Mistral's teachers are recent hires.
While the research is inconclusive on which dual immersion model is better, board member Devon Conley said she supported the changes. Reclassification was the top concern among the dozens of Spanish-speaking families at Mistral's English Language Advisory Committee (ELAC) in the winter, she said, and the district's reclassification rates only add to the legitimacy of those concerns.
"I do want to support the Spanish-speaking families who have really spoken out and have what I think are concrete concerns that are supported by the data," she said.
Parents, however, were absent from the superintendent's committee. Rudolph said he made a conscious decision to keep parents out of the process in order for teachers and staff to have a candid discussion about the school's shortcomings. He said the district had plenty of feedback from parents ahead of time, and that critical self-assessments are an "emotional conversation" that need to take place behind closed doors.
"It was hard enough for teachers to assess themselves, but to assess themselves in front of parents and to say we're not doing X, Y and Z -- if I was a parent and I heard a teacher say that, I would pull my kid out of that school immediately," he said.
To Mistral parent Enrique Torres, the district's decision felt like it was going back on a promise. He told board members that the community was told they would be given updates on the committee's progress, but instead got one "cafecito" meeting, essentially briefing parents on a decision that was already made. Swapping to a "50/50" model so abruptly, without community involvement right after parents made commitments on which school to send their child to in the fall, feels like a bait and switch, he said.
Joey Mercer told the Voice that he and other Mistral parents are ready to support changes that will improve the school, but doing so is difficult when all those decisions are made without parent input. Correspondence with Mistral parents was limited to a notice that non-specific changes to the Dual Immersion program were on the way.
If the district is forthcoming on why it's switching to a 50/50 model and the measures used to judge its effectiveness, Mercer said the district could get more parent buy-in. Instead, it feels like an edict coming down from the district regardless of parent input that threatens to divide families at Mistral.
"We really want to make sure that we stay together as a community," he said. "It would be horrible if this opportunity to re-evaluate how we're doing as a school divided things. If anything, it should be a time to embrace opportunities for how to do things better."
The committee's recommendations come at the end of an evolving discussion over how to extend the Dual Immersion program to eighth grade, rather than have bilingual education end after fifth grade at Mistral. This could include adding sixth, seventh and eighth grades at Mistral or having dual-language courses at Crittenden or Graham middle schools, but district officials have yet to seriously consider the options.
Although the idea of middle school Dual Immersion came up in 2017, Rudolph said he has held off on spending time considering the logistics of any expansion until there are clear signs Mistral's academic program works well. Given the low reclassification rates at Mistral, board member Tamara Wilson said it's time to trust the teachers at the school and move forward with the recommendations.
"We need more English immersion to bring equity to the 'dual' part of dual immersion," Wilson said.