web analytics

I got a couple of concerned calls from parents at the beginning of last week, and they were about the prospect of Traylor Academy being forced to turn into a “bilingual school” by the district.

After talking to a few parents, the rumor that was floating around was that the district was going to fire many of the teachers, and everyone was going to have to reapply for their jobs, because teachers with certifications for English learners would now need to be placed.

Of course, in every rumor is a kernel of truth.  As it turns out, 66 kids identified as English learners “choiced in” to Traylor for next year.  And it also turns out that the district, instead of really understanding which grades these kids will attend next year, caused alarm in the community by simply announcing that at a drop of a hat, the school would be turned into a Transitional Native Language Instruction (TNLI) school, without any previous notice.

This is what was sent to the school from the district on January 23:

Traylor Elementary School has been designated a Transitional Native Language Instruction (TNLI) and English as a Second Language (ESL) Resource school for the 2012-2013 school year based on the school’s preliminary projected English language learner population.

The English Language Acquisition Plan stipulates that a TNLI program is provided in elementary schools with 60 or more Spanish speaking students who are eligible for English Language Acquisition program services, and an ESL Resource program is provided in elementary schools with 10 or more English language learners who speak languages other than Spanish.

As you begin to plan for next year, please remember that English language learners must be placed in classrooms with ELA-E or ELA-S designated teachers. This means there needs to be at least one designated ELA-E and ELA-S teacher at every grade level to provide ELA-E and ELA-S content along with daily English language development instruction. Also you will need an ESL Resource teacher to provide pull-out services to the English language learners who speak languages other than Spanish.  Mild-Moderate teachers and Center Placement must also be designated.

A fully qualified ELA-E or ESL Resource teacher is one who is state endorsed in teaching the linguistically different or has satisfactorily met the requirements of the ELA Teacher Qualification Training provided by the District.

A fully qualified ELA-S teacher is one who is state endorsed in teaching the linguistically different or has satisfactorily met the requirements of the ELA Teacher Qualification Training provided by the District and one who has passed the Spanish Language Proficiency Exam.

A fully qualified Mild Moderate or Center Placement teacher is one who is state endorsed in teaching the linguistically different or has satisfactorily met the requirements of the ELA Teacher Qualification Training provided by the District.

As you can see from the letter, however, it’s just a blanket order from the district for a wholesale change.

It’s no wonder that families felt as if the bottom dropped out from under them.  Many of them have had kids at Traylor for a decade.  It’s a tightly-knit family, where long-term teachers have come to know every family well and who are as much a part of the growing up of each child as the parents themselves.  They are a whole-child oasis in a high-stakes test driven district, even though the school teaches the fundamentals with a strict behavior policy.  Still, they have a Shakespeare Festival team, the “Roar of the Tiger” choir and a band, a parent booster club, and more.  And achievement? The district classifies them as a “green” school, or “meets expectations.”  Their population is almost 65% low income, with 27% of the students classified as English learners, and 9% of the students are classified with some mild-to-moderate disability.

I met with a room full of parents, understandably hot under the collar, last Thursday evening.  The first thing I did was to apologize for the way this announcement had been handled.  I said that the district really screwed this up, and that they had to answer a lot of questions:

  • How did we establish that the incoming population of English learners required such a drastic change of staff?
  • What do we know about the English proficiency level of the 66 students?
  • What sort of flexibility did the court order allow for getting teachers up to speed?

Some background on this court order is in order.

In 1999, the courts decided in favor of the Justice Department, on behalf of the Congress of Hispanic Educators (a group of Denver-based teachers and advocates), that the Denver Public Schools had discriminated against students of limited English proficiency by not providing programs to properly transition them to English.  As a result, the district now has to allow parents to choose between one of three levels of transitional services: ELA-S classes (core subjects in Spanish, others in English), ELA-E classes (core classes in English with Spanish cues or instructions) or opting out into fully English-language classes (a form of immersion).  The court order specifies that only the parent can make this choice, and the school must provide these services once the elementary school population of English learners reaches 60 or more.  Click here to read a brochure for parents with more information.  Click here for the court order itself.

It’s clear that in no way does this court order require that Traylor become a “bilingual school.”  English-speaking students will not be forced to study Spanish, nor will Spanish-dominant students be only taught in English.  Instead, only those students who need help to transition into English will get such support.

As ominous as this sounds, however, there is a lot of flexibility in the court order.  In fact, instead of making all teachers apply for their jobs, the court order allows:

  • Where there are not a sufficient number of fully qualified ESL/Spanish language teachers for identified Program classrooms requiring such qualifications, fully qualified ESL teachers are assigned. The district also does one or both of the following, to the extent administratively feasible, if the assigned teacher is not proficient in Spanish:
    •  Assigns a Spanish speaking paraprofessional to the classroom during core subject area instruction; and/or
    • Regroups students for instruction through use of such strategies as resource teachers and pairing of classrooms so that core subject area instruction is provided in Spanish, if appropriate, by a teacher qualified in Spanish.

So there was no need to create the havoc at the school.  The district does not seem to know what’s actually ordered by the court.  There is no excuse for this.  I sent the district back to the drawing board to craft a solution that complied with the court order, allowed teachers to get the right qualifications and keep their jobs, and leave the program intact.

Why is this important?  I’ve done the analysis, and the data is clear.  “Exited” English learners, or kids that no longer need any help in Spanish and who now score “proficient” or “advanced” on their yearly English proficiency exam, score very, very well on the CSAP.  This is important, because their scores will help insulate Traylor from any district interference that could drastically change the program and redirect all resources and class time toward test prep, as is the case in so many of DPS’ public and charter schools.

As it is, the School Performance Framework the district uses to gauge schools does not take into consideration the progress that students make in their work toward English proficiency, which is basically the only reason why schools with high numbers of English learners appear to be “failing.”  They’re not.  They just have large numbers of kids who aren’t proficient enough in English to successfully take the CSAP.

The solution

I really do have to hand it to Shayley Olson, principal, and Ivan Duran, Instructional Superintendent.  They worked very hard, made the right analysis, and were able to make the case to the district that another plan was needed.

For next year, there will be an extra teacher assigned to Traylor, who will assist in teaching the core subjects as specified above.  Traylor’s other teachers then will have to make a professional choice for themselves: become qualified in English as a Second Language (ESL) or English Language Acquisition (ELA) or be reassigned to another school.  The court order does not seem to specify the time frame for this, but it should be assumed that “as soon as possible” is the goal.

Here is the letter that was sent home with parents this week.

And Traylor’s parents deserve a LOT of praise here. It didn’t take them long to express concern for ALL Traylor’s kids, and they rose swiftly in support of their neighborhood school community, with almost no notice! I received emails with comments like:

“The sudden and dramatic news of Traylor’s TNLI designation has hit our school community hard. We don’t have enough time to respond well to this mandate. Parents are angry. I won’t even attempt to speak for the teachers, but I can imagine there is little difference in how they feel about this as well. We, the parents, are committed to ALL OUR CHILDREN and are prepared to learn more about TNLI and how Traylor will implement the necessary changes. We, the parents, are also committed to ALL OUR TEACHERS and we find the staffing changes required UNACCEPTABLE given 1) the staffing deadline of February 10th and 2) the fact that the DISTRICT MESSED UP – BIG TIME. This sudden TNLI designation is the result of poor planning, oversight, communication and leadership at the district level. So why do our teachers have to pay the price? Why does our school community have to pay the price? Shouldn’t someone at your level of leadership take responsibility? “


In my mind, given the changing demographics of southwest Denver, and the influx of not just Spanish-speakers, but also speakers of Vietnamese, Chinese, Somali and the various West African languages, it is important for Traylor’s teachers to do what is necessary to gain this certification, if they don’t already have it.  At this point, the ball is in their court.

And why didn’t the district know this was coming down the pike two years ago?  Frankly, I think it’s because the staff in charge of English learner programs (the ELA department) is grossly understaffed, with only three staff members to oversee court order compliance AND best practices in teaching for the 100 or so public schools in the district.  Why is this important department so understaffed?  That’s a discussion for the next blog post.  Suffice to say that it’s about priorities of the Superintendent’s office.

All-in-all, though, I think we ended up with a very good win-win solution. What do you think?