Source: Houston Chronicle
Growing up, Yadira Banuelos tried to learn English by watching TV. “Most of the time, I wouldn’t know what they were talking about,” the Austin High School senior acknowledged. “Scooby Doo” left her confused. “Tom and Jerry” was easier. Her older brother spoke some English with her, but she heard mostly Spanish at home from her parents, who came to Houston from Mexico.
Now, Banuelos is one of 25 English language learners graduating at the top of the class, part of the largest group of ELL valedictorians that the Houston Independent School District has ever seen. The growth speaks to both the district’s increasing diversity and its expanding commitment to multilingual education. In three years, the district went from 14 to 55 dual-language campuses. Next school year, the district will open its first Arabic immersion magnet school after Arabic surpassed Vietnamese as the second-most common foreign language spoken at home in the district after Spanish.
“It is a district that really looks into: What are the needs of students? How are we best able to meet those needs? And not just that – how can we enhance the strengths students already have?” said Altagracia Guerrero, assistant superintendent for the district’s multilingual department.
The district also will be graduating its largest group of salutatorians – 14 – who started school speaking primarily another language.
Caught up to class
It was a struggle when Banuelos started school at DeAnda Elementary School, but her teachers were patient with her. “Most of the time they would talk to me in Spanish and let me have an hour in English,” said Banuelos. Little by little, she caught up to her classmates.
“You have to have that early support to get that foundation – that solid first-language foundation,” explained Hector Bojorquez, director for student access and success at the Austin-based Intercultural Development Research Association. Programs that split instruction time between a student’s first and second language cement critical skills in the student’s first language, according to Bojorquez.
And to offer programs like that costs money. With more, Bojorquez said the state could be a stronger leader in ELL education and achievement. But over time, state oversight of bilingual programs has become less strict. And English language learners often still lag behind their fellow students on state standardized tests, as was the case for HISD, according to its 2014 accountability ratings from the Texas Education Agency. Only 57 percent of ELL students in HISD tested at the phase-in satisfactory standard across all subjects while 71 percent of all district students did. And the district has struggled to reach its System Safeguard Federal Graduation Rate target for ELL students, according to its most recent district improvement plan. Roughly 55 percent of ELL students graduated within four years of starting high school in the 2012-2013 school year, compared with the target rate of 78 percent.
But Bojorquez said many ELL students know they have to work to master two languages and when they do, the benefits are there.
When Banuelos found out after her freshman year that she was at the top of her class, she wasn’t sure what that meant. “They gave me a sheet,” she remembered, and her teachers were excited.
“My sophomore year – that’s when I began to understand it more,” she said. From then on, she worked to maintain her grades, taking a special interest in biology and English classes. She participated in debates, joined the recycling program and took part in a partnership with the Rotary Club. “I just kept trying my hardest,” said Banuelos.
When she found out she had protected her top spot through senior year, her parents were excited for her. “They did not have many opportunities. They did not finish middle school,” she said. “They want us to try our best.”
Over the years, Banuelos has tried to help her mother learn English too. At teacher conferences, Banuelos sometimes translated for her. That experience, and her time interning at an elementary school, have convinced her that she wants to become a teacher in a bilingual program. “I felt it was very important for students to learn two languages,” said Banuleos, who is headed to the University of Houston to study education.
From the district’s standpoint, it’s a plus for any student to speak two languages. Officials describe bilingual students as having increased vocabulary, being more competitive academically and better prepared for the job market.
“Those students … in the dual language program do exceed the academic achievement of other students,” said Guerrero, “so we want to be able to provide that opportunity for more students.”
The district plans to expand its multilingual programming, which includes traditional bilingual education as well as its dual language curriculum, to 10 to 15 campuses per year, according to Guerrero.
The variety of programs allows the districts to deal with a range of abilities, so a student like Poornima Tamma – born in Central India but who came in to HISD at the kindergarten level speaking some English – can get the most appropriate coursework.
She was in an ESL program in kindergarten, but by the time she transitioned into the Vanguard magnet program at River Oaks Elementary, she was able to work in English while speaking mostly Telugu at home. Her parents speak to her and her sister in Telugu and they respond in English. “There’s some slang you can only say in one language,” she said. “That’s when we switch.”
Graduating as salutatorian at Debakey High School for Health Professions, Tamma gravitated toward math and science. Her mother is a histotechnologist at UT Medical School and her father is a senior information technologies manager at Universal Weather and Aviation, but she said the interest in math and science was her own. “I’m thinking about going to medical school or going into engineering,” she said, a decision she’ll make at University of Texas Austin.
Range of languages
When she wants to speak Telugu at school, she can. “There’s like 10 of us that speak Telugu,” she said. “Here, with so many people, it’s like you can connect to them on more than one level and I think that’s pretty great.”
She said those in her class speak a range of languages and come from diverse cultural backgrounds, as reflected by its club offerings. “And every year we put on this international festival in which we all dress up in our native clothes and each club does a performance. We have a line dance, they do traditional dances,” said Tamma. “I can’t dance to save my life but I do enjoy dressing up.”
She performs more confidently at the podium as a member of her school’s public forum debate team. Her debate partner is from Belize. Together they debate foreign policy issues.
Tamma credits the district’s diversity for her rich academic experience. “I think HISD, because it’s so big, it has to deal with this diversity and so that makes HISD very supportive in terms of creating these programs.”