Hurdles for Hispanic students in Adams 14

Arguing that increased instructional time is the most important thing for students’ education, Adams 14 School District eliminated parent-teacher conferences, encouraging parents to use an online program that helps them track their student’s progress. 

Despite the district’s defense of the decision, some say the move could further alienate parents and stifle student progress, especially for parents who don’t speak English fluently. Adams 14, which encompasses Commerce City, has a large Hispanic population, with 83.5 percent of students identified as Hispanic and more than half identified as English-language learners. 

“Increased time in the classroom is not the only factor that matters when it comes to a student’s performance in school,” said Molly Hamm-Rodriguez, a doctoral student in the Educational Equity and Cultural Diversity program at the University of Colorado Boulder. “If you look at student performance holistically, we know that engaging parents is something that is effective in helping students improve.”

Hamm-Rodriguez works with The Bilinguals United for Education and New Opportunities (BUENO) Center, an organization based at CU Boulder’s School of Education. The BUENO Center has many initiatives, but is involved with Adams 14 through a program called Literacy Squared which strives to help English-language learners obtain access to bilingual education. This began after the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found that Adams 14 had “created a hostile environment toward Hispanic students and staff, and failed to communicate effectively with LEP [limited-English proficiency] parents in a language and manner that they understand.”

Spanish was essentially outlawed in Adams 14. Administrators admitted wanting to “eradicate” the language, prohibiting both students and teachers from speaking it under any circumstances. Hispanic students were reportedly told by their teachers to “go back to Mexico” on multiple occasions. Teachers who spoke with Spanish accents were forced to resign, with one being “harassed” by the principal in front of her elementary students on multiple occasions before leaving the school, according to a report filed by the Office for Civil Rights. 

Although this investigation was carried out seven years ago, staff and community members are still worried that the district is unfair to its Hispanic members, especially in light of recent decisions by the district’s board of education.

Current actions seem reminiscent of the past

“We will not let what happened in 2009 happen again,” Tania Hogan, a bilingual educator and president of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education (CABE), said with a shaky voice during an Adams 14 school board meeting in November.

Hogan is concerned that despite sanctions, the district is far from making much-needed improvements, noting that recent changes would have a disproportionately negative impact on Hispanic parents and their students. 

“The decision to forego face-to-face parent-teacher conferences in favor of an online parent portal is culturally incompatible for those whose cultures place a high value on that personal connection. We do not believe that it is welcoming or a welcoming environment to tell parents that the school will no longer make time for them,” Hogan said to a room packed full of parents and educators. “Communication to parents in Spanish is crucial to meaningful parental and community engagement.”

Decreasing parent and community involvement in education has a negative impact on students, Hogan and others proponents of biliteracy believe, especially when they have other things to worry about, like assimilating into a new community or learning a new language.

“Eliminating parent-teacher conferences prevents parents from really having that contact that they should have with their student’s teachers to allow them to advocate for their student, to be able to hear one-on-one how their student’s doing, how to get tips on how they could help support their learning in the home,” Hamm-Rodriguez said. 

The move is defended by board members who claim increasing instructional time will be more helpful than setting aside two days for conferences, likely because the district is feeling pressure from external sources to make such a move considering it has repeatedly failed to perform at a reasonable level on state-mandated assessments. 

According to US News and World Report, only 3 percent of students in the district are proficient in mathematics; and although data for English proficiency was unavailable, the county was in danger of being taken over by the state. Such a move could have resulted in the closure of multiple schools or in merging the district with another nearby education system. 

Instead, Adams 14 proposed an alternate plan that was unanimously approved by the state board of education. By working with Beyond Textbooks, a K-12 educational program that utilizes English-only curricula and resources, administrators believe students can improve their educational performance. 

Despite the new strategy, the district continues to fall short for ELLs

This English-focused approach, some say, prohibits English-language learners from fully developing their cognitive skills. 

Jim Cummins, a professor at the University of Toronto specializing in language and learning development of English-language learners, wrote in his article “Multilingualism in the English-language Classroom: Pedagogical Considerations” that a “fundamental principle of learning states that learners’ preexisting knowledge is the foundation for all future learning.” Not allowing students to access their native language presumably stifles their chances of learning in Adams 14, as many Hispanic English-language learners rely on translation from Spanish to learn English. 

In terms of performance on standardized testing, there is no evidence that prohibiting English-language learning students from practicing their native language does anything to better their test results. Jorge Garcia, the executive director of CABE, said that, if anything, ELL students who are taught in bilingual environments are shown to produce better scores.  

“English-language learners assigned to dual-language immersion classrooms were more likely to be classified as English proficient by sixth grade when compared to peers enrolled in traditional classes,” Garcia said, adding that dual-language students outperformed their peers who were in English-only instruction on English reading tests. “Research continues to fly in the face of biased beliefs.”

Hamm-Rodriguez echoed Garcia’s sentiment, noting that incorporating the students’ native language helps far beyond standardized testing as it allows students to learn everything their English-only counterparts do on their own terms.

“There’s a misconception that developing biliteracy will actually make it harder for you to learn English, or actually make it take longer for you to learn English, even when research shows that being able to develop literacy in your native language actually accelerates your learning, and that students either catch up or bypass students who did not have a biliteracy program,” Hamm-Rodriguez said. “They’re not missing out on content while they’re learning the language.”

An issue of equity

In spite of what research shows, many school districts choose to adopt an English-only model to meet standards set by accountability systems that Hamm-Rodriguez said “look solely or almost solely at student test scores as a measure of school quality.”

“It really does put unfair pressure on schools,” Hamm-Rodriguez said. “It doesn’t allow them to make the best decision for students.”

All of the focus on standardized testing, which Hamm-Rodriguez said does little to help educators or students, has left no room for the district to consider the input of teachers and parents, who were mostly upset by the decision to end parent-teacher conferences. 

“Many teachers see [working with parents] as a huge part of their job, so it’s unfair for teachers not to have that built into their schedule, then to expect them to work on top of their regular schedule, unpaid hours, to do that parent outreach,” Hamm-Rodriguez said, noting that it’s an issue of equity that students, parents and teachers in a more affluent community wouldn’t have to grapple with. 

“Why are parents in a district like Adams 14 not being given the opportunity to have these conferences? Why are teachers in a district like Adams 14 not being allowed to have that time built into their schedule to reach out to parents?”