- Associated Press - Sunday, January 15, 2017

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Beatriz Cardona’s American Dream focuses on her son Nestor, who she hopes someday works in medicine.

Cardona, an El Salvadorian immigrant, knows her 9-year-old needs to learn English if he is ever to succeed - and fast.

In the last year the two have been in the United States, she has ensured Nestor takes advantage of the opportunities Metro Nashville Public Schools and the community provide.

“For me, I want him to learn right away. It’s going to help him a lot,” the mother said in Spanish. “My son has been here for a year, and he’s made significant progress.”

Nashville is home to the largest share of English learners in the state, about 15 percent of its 86,000 students - double that of the next largest population in Shelby County.

The expectation of the mother match what could be the expectation of Tennessee districts under the state’s plan to put in place the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, the most sweeping education law since No Child Left Behind.

The Tennessee Department of Education’s draft plan says students not English proficient by their seventh-year in classes will be deemed as long-term language learners, kicking in extra scrutiny and accountability.

Tennessee’s plan puts a focus on some at-risk student groups for the first time and holds districts accountable for teaching those students. That includes the progress of English language learners, which hasn’t been required to be reported in previous years.

While the state is seeing universal support for its work, questions still remain, especially with how the state plans to support teachers in their work with at-risk students. Some statewide advocacy groups believe the state could set higher expectations for its students.

Similar to Cardona’s expectation, advocacy group Conexion Americas also sees seven years as too late when it comes to teaching English learners. National research varies on how fast it takes for those students to become proficient in English - from 5 to 10 years.

“That is far too long,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, policy manager at Nashville-based Conexion Americas. The Latino advocacy nonprofit has provided feedback on the state’s draft, especially as it relates to English learners.

“When a student enters into kindergarten and we say we don’t worry about them until 6th or 7th grade - those students aren’t on track at all,” Pupo-Walker said.

The intent of the Every Student Succeeds Act is to move student outcomes into focus as the federal government gives states more power in setting goals for students, according to Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the sponsor of the legislation. The new law spells out stronger accountability for all students, as well as those considered at-risk

“Under the new law, we are now providing those closest to our children, rather than federal bureaucrats, with the flexibility to decide how to use that information to improve schools,” Alexander said in an emailed statement.

Many students considered at-risk have traditionally been under the radar. No Child Left Behind, replaced by the new law, required some reporting on these at-risk groups, but not to this level.

More than 35 percent of the state’s students are economically disadvantaged. Almost 140,000 Tennessee students are classified as having disabilities. And estimates show about 5 percent of Tennessee’s 1 million students are English language learners, according to a Migration Policy Institute.

Each will get added attention in the state’s accountability system, as well as a subgroup of students that are Hispanic, black and Native American, putting academic expectations for those groups on the map for the first time.

Under the state’s draft plan, homeless and foster kids also will get more attention.

Tennessee education department officials said they want to create a suite of support options for districts and not prescribe programs.

The Tennessee education department plans to provide more money to support districts, as well as study how best to serve these at-risk students through teacher training. The state also wants to build a support network for rural and urban schools across the state to share teaching practices for specific subgroups.

Regional offices will work with districts on spending decisions and advise on how best to spend federal funds, said Eve Carney, education department executive director of consolidated planning and monitoring.

The plan is a major improvement for students, Pupo-Walker said. And State Collaborative on Reforming Education, or SCORE, President David Mansouri said the draft plan aligns with what is most important for Tennessee.

“It creates a better accountability system that Tennessee didn’t have under No Child Left Behind, in particular, for underserved students,” Mansouri said.

While the accountability section of the draft is strong, according to supporters of the plan, many others have felt the plan is short on specifics about how to address student subgroup needs, especially English learners.

Tennessee lists training within the plan for teachers but will need to, at some point, be more specific on what that looks like, said Samantha Singer, an East Nashville High School English teacher. Singer served on a state education department Every Student Succeeds Act committee focused on English language support.

“Every teacher across the state has an (English learner) or will have (one) at some point,” she said. “Most don’t have the training.”

Singer said the state could look to California and New York for immediate solutions. As well, Singer noted that the state also has an opportunity through its Tennessee Education Research Alliance to hone in on best practices. The alliance is a state collaborative with Vanderbilt University meant to research Tennessee’s public schools.

State Collaborative on Reforming Education officials also have offered feedback saying that more support needs to be spelled out to teachers and districts, especially for those schools that are under performing, according to Mary Cypress Metz, chief of staff. The majority of the state’s lowest-performing schools are filled with economically disadvantaged students.

SCORE, a nonprofit education think tank founded by former Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist, also noted they’d like to see higher expectations for all students in the plan.

“We think some of information can be strengthened and the state can have more ambitious proficiency goals,” Metz said.

Pupo-Walker said the state can include more regional office support to districts that specialize in English language instruction. The state has one supervisor for each of the state’s eight regions.

Part of the reason Pupo-Walker wants higher goals for English learners is because research shows they tend to be high achievers once they are proficient in English.

For Cardona, she’s going to continue to push her child to do better regardless of the state’s expectation. The single mother came from El Salvador after gangs threatened her business and her son. With a new life, she expects the boy to succeed.

“It’s not easy being here and leaving everything back there,” she said. “I want the best for my child, like any parent, and I want him to do well.”


Information from: The Tennessean, https://www.tennessean.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More

Click to Hide