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Teacher LeiRene Perez works with third-grade students in Spanish at Treadwell Elementary School in Memphis.

Teacher LeiRene Perez works with third-grade students in Spanish at Treadwell Elementary School in Memphis.

For state’s only dual language program, turnaround efforts present challenges

When one innovative academic program bumps into another innovative academic program, worlds can sometimes collide.

Such is the case at Treadwell Elementary School in Memphis, home of the state’s only dual language program and also part of the Innovation Zone, an aggressive academic turnaround program within Shelby County Schools.

While Treadwell’s dual language program graduates its first class of students this year, the program also is reeling from the challenges and repercussions of being part of the iZone. Leaders are strategizing how to increase enrollment, retain and recruit more teachers and enrich its curriculum, which is conducted mostly in Spanish for both native Spanish and English speakers.

The challenges stem largely from 2012 when the state labeled Treadwell among Tennessee’s worst schools academically, as well as a subsequent decision by the district to move Treadwell into its iZone.

The intervention has been effective for the school overall, with Treadwell’s math test scores jumping 10 percent, but often intrusive for the school’s innovative bilingual education program, now in its sixth year.

Many parents are reluctant to enroll their child into a school amongst the state’s bottom five percent. Today, 157 students remain in the program, with just 12 students in its fifth-grade class. In addition, six of the nine dual language teachers have been replaced in the last year. And the school has had four principals in three years.

The turnover is normal for an iZone school, a demanding place for educators that focuses on intense and expensive turnaround efforts to boost student test scores. However, the interventions, which usually are conducted in English, cause frequent disruptions to the dual language program and significant challenges to its teachers, who work to build an environment of cultural diversity, while teaching literacy and content in two languages.

“We’re trying to meet the requirements of the iZone while also maintaining the integrity and sanctity of a quality dual language program,” said Talia Palacio, the program’s newest director.

The dual language program is one of three of the district’s magnet programs located at a priority school in Shelby County.

“Our dual language program is a diamond in the rough in our own corner of the world,” said Treadwell Principal Tanisha L. Heaston. “The iZone, I think, has upped the rigor for our entire school.”

Treadwell established the program in 2009 to add to then-Memphis City Schools’ extensive world language program which includes Russian, Japanese and Arabic. At the time, the surrounding Highland Heights neighborhood had an influx of Hispanic families, and the program has helped to smooth the transition for many native Spanish speakers who fill up about half of its enrollment.

For native English speakers, simultaneously learning a new language while also learning new classroom material requires the sort of brain power and decoding that results in deeper comprehension and higher test scores. Student scores have outpaced those of fellow students in the rest of the school.

Classrooms are organized in groups so that two native Spanish-speaking students sit next to two native English-speaking students. It’s not unusual to see 5-year-olds interpreting for each other the teacher’s lessons, a process that reinforces the material for children. Classroom walls are covered in maps, Spanish vocabulary lists and posters that highlight customs from Spanish-speaking countries. Teachers receive the district’s curriculum in Spanish and interpret all of the school’s other lesson plans and supplemental material.

To participate, students must maintain satisfactory grades in all of their classes and cannot miss more than 15 days of school. Older students describe the program as challenging but adventurous — full of field trips, classroom activities and imaginary journeys around the world.

“It was hard at first,” said fifth-grader Elaine Howard. “But then when you got to pick up on the language, it got easier.”

The iZone, meanwhile, is an equally intense model that relies on steady intervention and frequent assessments to make sure students are on track to make significant academic gains. An extra hour is tacked onto the school day. If students are falling behind, they’re pulled out of class for tutoring, and if enough children are behind, the lesson is taught over again. Teachers are paid bonuses for test score gains and often work late into the night reviewing spreadsheets and developing new lesson plans.

The focus and intensity of both programs sometimes don’t mesh.

During a recent dual language class, just weeks before taking their standardized tests, students hovered over laptop computers, immersed in remedial lessons. Although the Mexican flag hung over the room, indicating the language to be spoken, students were taking their online lessons in English.

“I’m not sure the district really knows what we are about,” said LeiRene Perez, a teacher in the program since its start. “They’re constantly pushing a lot more on us and the children. A child can be behind up until the fifth grade because they’re learning two languages.”

While being an iZone school is challenging, school leaders say Treadwell has benefited from numerous resources provided by the district such as laptop computers. They want both programs to be successful and hope eventually to grow dual language enrollment to 500 students. They are promoting the program in newspapers, on radio shows and at school fairs, and also are recruiting Spanish-speaking tutors.

At a school board meeting this week, dual language students spoke both in Spanish and English to describe their day at school.

“We’re producing bi-lingual, bi-literate and bi-cultural students,” said Palacio, who was born in Panama. “We want this program to be here for the long run.”

Contact Daarel Burnette II at dburnette@chalkbeat.org or (901) 260-3705.

Follow us on Twitter: @Daarel, @chalkbeattn.

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