OVERLAND, Mo. — On a recent morning in teacher Geri Ross’s classroom at Marion Elementary School, second graders sat at clusters of desks, singing songs and reading stories in Spanish.
The walls were decorated with colorful posters depicting letter sounds, math concepts and vocabulary in both English and Spanish. After lunch, Ross switched a light at the front of the room from red to blue and sang a new call-and-response song with the students.
“Welcome all, to the class in English,” the students sang. “Goodbye Spanish. Hello to English.”
The students have spent the past school year in a pilot class that is testing bilingual education in the Ritenour School District.
Just across the river in Illinois, schools are required to provide bilingual education in some classrooms. But Missouri schools have found it difficult to start similar programs. As educators search for ways to help students who were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, Ritenour leaders say its pilot class has had a hugely positive effect on students’ confidence and their test scores.
Rather than being pulled out of class to focus on English, the students work on their math, reading and writing skills in Spanish in the morning, then learn those same subjects in English in the afternoon. In this class, even students who are new to the country can jump right into their coursework, instead of waiting until their English improves.
In a break between class, Ross ticked off learning gains that would make most educators’ jaws drop. In math, all of her students started the school year “below basic;” two semesters later, 70% are at or above district standards. More than half the class was reading below grade level at the beginning of the year. Now, 1 in 5 students in the class has improved their reading by two or more grade levels.
The school’s principal, Bilal Ewing, said Ross is an outstanding teacher, but he thinks the format of the class was a big part of the success. “The results that she got with this class outpaced even the results that she had shown with her normal classroom the previous year, so there has to be something in the methodology,” he said.
This is the first year the Ritenour School District has offered a class like this, and it happened because Ross pushed for it. She was raised bilingually; her mother spoke with her in Spanish growing up, though she is not a native Spanish speaker. Ross tells her students their bilingualism is a superpower.
After just three years as a teacher, Ross’ reputation precedes her in the district. Administrators have noticed her exceptional ability to connect with her students and their parents, while also producing what Ewing called “crazy” academic results. She also works to recognize her students’ cultural heritage, by celebrating each of their home countries during Hispanic Heritage month and keeping in regular contact with parents on WhatsApp.
But her exceptionalism is also an example of the challenges in implementing a program like this — while Ritenour leaders wish they could add more bilingual classes, teachers like Ross are hard to come by.
Barriers to expansion
In St. Louis, there’s a shortage of teachers who have Missouri’s English Language Learner Certification. It’s even harder to find bilingual teachers with the certification, said Julie Hahn, Ritenour’s assistant superintendent of student services.
“We just don’t have the people,” Hahn said. “You have to have people with passion. They have to have a true understanding of language acquisition and really want to do this particular job, because it’s hard.”
Lack of staff is one reason this teaching model is relatively rare in St. Louis. Some charter and private schools in the region offer instruction in other languages, like the St. Louis Language Immersion School. But unlike the Ritenour class, these schools are often geared toward both native English speakers and speakers of other languages.
And while some public school students in Carthage and Kansas City, Missouri, are able to take bilingual classes, it’s “challenging to create these programs and do them really well,” said University of Missouri associate professor Lisa Dorner.
A district has to have the perfect mix of student demographics that would be well-served by this model, along with highly skilled teachers and resources to implement the program equitably.
“In a lot of our districts, we don’t necessarily have high numbers of students from the same language group,” said Dorner, who studies educational policy and immigrant childhoods.
The Ritenour district has a large concentration of Spanish-speaking families, and at Marion Elementary, nearly a third of the students speak Spanish.
But in St. Louis Public Schools, students speak more than 50 languages. They also have a diverse range of educational experiences before coming to the district, which could mean this model wouldn’t be best for them. Instead, the district tries to tailor its program to meet the needs of each individual language learner, said Alla Gonzalez Del Castillo, director of the ESOL Bilingual Migrant Program in St. Louis Public Schools.
“While in our district we don’t have bilingual programming, we do encourage our teachers to allow students to use their first language, or to create opportunities where they will use their first language,” Gonzalez Del Castillo said. “There are many different programs that can be good for English language learners, but you really need to look at the context and see what’s best for the learners in that district.”
Illinois’ long history
Unlike Missouri, schools in Illinois are required to provide some form of bilingual instruction if they have more than 20 students in one school who are learning English and speak the same language at home. That has been state law since the 1970’s.
In the Metro East, the Collinsville School District first began teaching bilingual classes for kindergarten students in 2008 and has since expanded to multiple grade levels across several buildings.
“Back when I was in school, it was more like the old sink or swim that you just put them in the classroom,” said Carla Cruise, the district’s English Learner Coordinator. “They learn English because that’s the only thing that was being taught. But research has shown that if you connect the ideas and the concepts and the skills with their native language, they actually learn more. “
Since the program’s launch, hundreds of kids have taken the bilingual classes. The program has not only boosted academic outcomes, Cruise said, it’s also fostered a closer relationship with the community.
“We have such a large population that I think because of the support and the progress that we’re making, the families are happy here,” Cruise said. “And the word gets out to other family members and they sometimes relocate from other areas to our district.”
There is a special endorsement for Illinois teachers in bilingual education, an option not available to Missouri teachers. Cruise said the state also helps make it easier to find teachers for the program by giving them five years to teach while finishing their licensing requirements.
For the second graders in Ross’ class, this has been a special year. After nearly two years of pandemic-related disruptions, this was their first full year of in-person learning.
Eight-year-old Jeri Urbina Morales moved to St. Louis from Mexico with his family two years ago and spent his first school year in the U.S. learning virtually.
His mother, Carmen Morales Mora, said she often found him tuning out of class last year because of the language barrier.
“It was really difficult when it was virtual because he couldn’t concentrate during class,” Morales Mora said in Spanish. “He wouldn’t pay attention because he said he didn’t understand, and he became hopeless.”
Now, Jeri looks forward to his classes, especially art, math and reading. He said he’s improved a lot in English and is friends with many of his classmates. “When I grow up, being bilingual will help me be a doctor,” Jeri wrote for a recent class assignment.
But next year, he and his classmates will enter traditional third grade classes taught in English. They can still receive support from language specialists, but their class experience won’t be bilingual like it was this year.
Jeri said he feels ready to use English more often in school next year, but district officials recognize that’s not ideal.
“I do think that’s one of our challenges: Now what?” said Hahn, the Ritenour administrator. “Ideally, we would have a continuum of supports throughout their schooling, and we do not have the capacity at this time to do that.”
Hahn said Ritenour needs a district-wide plan to make sure it’s continuing to celebrate and value multilingual students and help them develop academic skills in their first language.
“Ideally, a program would go through fifth grade and then in middle school, you would have the opportunity to take maybe your government classes in Spanish, maybe your science would be in English, maybe your math would be in Spanish,” said Dorner, of the University of Missouri. “So you would still continue that bilingual approach over time.”
For her part, Ross will be teaching another bilingual class next year — this time with first graders. The district hopes to catch kids earlier to give them the extra benefit of bilingual education.