Perfect Timing-Dual language learners and preschool expansion

By Elizabeth Franks

Dual Language Learners (DLLs) are young children who are in the process of learning two or more languages between birth and age 5. According to research from the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), high-quality preschool can reduce achievement gaps before children even enter kindergarten. Stronger native language and English skills at kindergarten entry predict best school outcomes for DLL students, but most state preschool programs do not report providing comprehensive policies to support DLL students.

Gov. Phil Murphy has expanded full-day preschool funding to 113 districts for 3- and 4-year-old children. The expansion of preschool funding may be perfect timing to ensure that such programs address the needs of DLL students.

What does the research say?

How can we cohesively respond to the expansion of full-day preschool funding and the needs of DLL students? Research confirms that children who attend high quality preschools, show a reduced need for remediation, improved overall achievement and higher rates of high school graduation.

Data also indicate that many English learners experience an achievement gap and have the lowest graduation rates of all subgroups in New Jersey. So it is logical to conclude that investing in high quality programs for DLL students in preschool will pay dividends in the future.

At the same time that preschool funding was expanded in New Jersey, NIEER published Opportunities and Policies for Young Dual Language Learners a report by researchers Milagros Nores, Allison Friedman Krauss, and Ellen Frede. This national report found that with the growth of the DLL population, Hispanic DLL students continue to fall behind their non-Hispanic white peers in access to preschool and achievement. It is incumbent upon states to develop appropriate policies to address this need. The research confirms that DLL students benefit strongly from participating in high-quality preschool and that bilingualism provides lifelong benefits for children and families.

Stronger home language and English skills at kindergarten entry predict the best school outcomes for dual language learners.

The report makes several recommendations, which include:

  Identify the number of DLL students in preschool classes in order to create policy decisions in relation to teacher preparation and curriculum.

  Screen and assess all children in both languages.

  Require programs to specifically plan to meet the educational needs of DLL students.

Most importantly, NIEER advocates for increased access to bilingual preschool for DLL students and English-only speakers and encourages partnerships with higher education institutions.

Current reality

With the convergence of the growing demographic of DLL students, the expansion of preschool funding to districts with significant numbers of DLL students and the research that defines a high-quality preschool program for DLL students, it is a perfect time to discuss the various ways we can address these phenomena from different perspectives. Since many challenges exist that affect appropriate services for this vulnerable subgroup, solutions need to be coordinated at the local, state, university and legislative levels.

At the state level, the Bilingual Education law (N.J.A.C 6A:15) mandates bilingual programs when there are more than 20 children from the same language background beginning in kindergarten through grade 12. Bilingual education is not mandated in preschool classrooms. However, the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) provides the following guidance in the Preschool Program Implementation guidelines:

“We strongly support dual language programs, in which students are engaged in academic work in both English and another language as an effective way to meet the needs of English language learners and close the achievement gap (Lindholm-Leary, 2001; Collier & Thomas 2004, 2009, 2014). Dual language programs integrate English language learners and English-speaking students and provide instruction in English and the native language of the English language learners. They are an effective way to provide second language instruction through an immersion approach for both bilingual and monolingual English-speaking students.”

The good news is that several school districts abide by those guidelines and have implemented dual language preschool programs: Jersey City, Englewood, Elizabeth, Perth Amboy, Jamesburg and New Brunswick, to name a few. Other districts have also implemented bilingual preschool classes specifically for DLL students, such as Union City, Franklin Township (Somerset County), Long Branch and Vineland). 

Not only has the NJDOE adopted these guidelines, it has even added the following directions to the preschool expansion plan proposal: “Although not required… offering dual language programs… lead[s] to a more competitive proposal.”

Unfortunately, even with that incentive, some districts do not feel compelled to provide it. Guidance is not the same as a mandate, and as a result, many preschool programs with significant numbers of DLL students provide an English-only environment. In this setting, preschool teachers are encouraged to provide support for children’s home languages through daily activities that promote oral language development and phonemic awareness in both languages, which may be challenging if no one speaks the home languages of the children. This is definitely a best practice when there is a low incidence of DLL students, but when the district must provide a bilingual program in kindergarten, it stands to reason that the linguistic needs of this population should be specifically addressed in preschool.

We now have a roadmap before us to help the dual language learners in our state. We just need the will to follow through at every level.

 

Recommendations

Higher education and teacher preparation programs are the next critical levels to be involved in this conversation. One of the biggest challenges in creating bilingual programs and pathways at any level is the shortage of certified bilingual teachers. As a state, we need to find ways to recruit and retain bilingual teachers. The NJDOE created a document titled THREAD: An Approach for Recruitment and Retention of Bilingual Professionals. THREAD stands for tap, harness, reach, establish awareness and develop. It advises school districts on ways to recruit bilingual teachers. It can be found at
bit.ly/njdoethread.

The New Jersey Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages and New Jersey Bilingual Educators (NJTESOL/NJBE) has developed recommendations on ways that teacher education programs can recruit viable bilingual candidates at the college level, which can be found at
bit.ly/tesol-be-recruit.

A few of the recommendations
include:

  Host a session for preservice candidates on the immediate need and additional requirements for bilingual and/or ESL certification.

  Reach out to community college transfers with bilingual ability.

  Recruit recipients of the Seal of Biliteracy.

Preschool students in Long Branch on a “letter hunt.”

Last year, 120 districts participated in the Seal of Biliteracy initiative with 3,579 graduating seniors demonstrating proficiency in two languages. These students are a vibrant pool of viable candidates that we have yet to tap. Dual language programs build that pathway to biliteracy for all students.

Finally, to truly implement all of these positive practices, we need legislative support. We must recognize the value of biliteracy and the assets that our students bring to school with them. In order to begin more dual language classes, we need to address the teacher shortage.

Legislators, both federal and state, can introduce bills that will provide funding and grants for college and local districts to work together. One such bill was introduced in the current House of Representatives. The Reaching English Learners Act, HR-1153, will award grants to eligible partnerships to ensure that teacher candidates possess the knowledge and skills necessary to effectively instruct English learners. HR-1153 was referred to the House Committee on Education and Labor. As of press time, no New Jersey Representatives are co-sponsoring this legislation. In addition, last year, a Dual Language Immersion bill, S-1630/A-2437, was passed in the New Jersey Senate but has not yet been posted in the Assembly. We need to work with the NJDOD and our legislators to find ways to promote dual language programs and support the training of teachers in this approach.

It will take a village to proactively close the achievement gap. Dual language and bilingual preschool classrooms are a powerful beginning to that journey. The research is clear: stronger home language and English skills at kindergarten entry predict the best school outcomes for dual language learners. We now have a roadmap before us to help them. We just need the will to follow through at every level.

Elizabeth J. Franks, Ed. D. is an NJREA member, a former bilingual/ESL teacher and supervisor for the Roselle Public Schools, and currently serves as the Advocacy representative for NJTESOL/NJBE. She can be reached at EJF24BB@gmail.com.

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