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WCSD’s English language learner support varies across district

A collage of six photos showing a dual language classroom at Jessie Beck Elementary School, including backpacks hanging on hooks, a teacher talking from the front of the classroom, a board with words for numbers in Spanish, student paying attention to a teacher, origami cranes hanging from the ceiling, and a group of students working at a table.
Zoe Malen
KUNR Public Radio
Scenes from Jessie Beck Elementary School in Reno, Nev. on May, 1, 2023, one of WCSD's two schools with dual language programs.

Washoe County School District's English Language Learners underperform their native English-speaking peers in almost every metric.

Clayton Middle School seventh grader Rossie Copado Reyes recalls a dream she had two years ago. She dreamed that she was taking a proficiency test as a part of her English language development program. At the time she had the dream, she’d already been out of the program for a year. The dream reminded her and her mom of the stress of that time.

Rossie took online tests almost daily during her time at Grace Warner Elementary School. She was an English language (EL) student from Pre-K until testing out of the program in 4th grade. But her experience in the program wasn’t great.

“Well, I was usually just in my classes, and you know, I ate lunch. And then it was towards the end of the day. And then they would just take me out of class. And then I'd be in here, and they'd seat me somewhere in the back. And then I’d just be testing for like a while. I'm not sure. But it always felt like an hour or so,” she said.

Rossie received little one-on-one support. The EL teacher in the room usually focused on students who were further behind, she said. At that time, Rossie struggled with speaking and pronunciation tests.

Megan Waugh, the district’s Director of English Language Development, said she can not comment on Rossie's experience because she wasn't part of her school at the time, but indicated that schools can structure intervention support according to the needs of the student and the school staff's capacity.

“It is not uncommon for students with greater needs to receive more intensive support, it is not specific policy per se, but is the structure of the Multi-tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) process,” Waugh said.

Rossie’s mother Viviana Reyes was also once an EL student in WCSD. When her family arrived from Mexico in the 90s, she was placed in the Newcomer program at Pine Middle School. Newcomer students who are middle and high school age are placed in courses with other new-to-country students instead of regular classes for up to a year.

She later attended Clayton as an EL student. She remembers being able to ask her regular teacher for permission to go to one of the two EL teachers on staff to get help with schoolwork.

Nearly 30 years later, there's still no district-wide standard for English language learning. Depending on where a student lives in the district, they could be getting a different level of English language education than a student at another school. That simply means that some students are likelier than others to succeed in classes if they get more or better English language support.

The district uses seven different English language instruction models. EL students are supported in whichever model that their school chooses, Waugh said.

“So, some might do a push-in/pull-out model, some of our schools have what we call a site facilitator,” Waugh said. “Regardless, teachers are encouraged to use scaffolds and strategies and embed language within all of their instruction.”

Most of the district’s schools use the models she mentioned. The push-in/pull-out model is similar to Rossie’s experience.

In the site facilitator model, an EL-trained administrator focuses on training general education teachers how to incorporate language development into their classes. Those facilitators only spend a quarter of their time with students.

Other models, like the Newcomer program and co-taught English classes, exist on a smaller scale across the district.

Waugh identified some challenges holding the district back. It's difficult to hire bilingual school staff and standardized tests rely on complex academic language that EL students often struggle with.

And EL students receive different support depending on which school they attend. Waugh said she doesn’t have data on what model works best.

“My goal is to develop a model of instruction consistent across all the schools for Washoe County School District, and also to have that continual language support, embedded constantly in instruction and every content area,” she said.

During a Board of Trustees meeting, Waugh told trustees that she wants to grow the site facilitator model across the district. In her presentation, she said mainstreaming EL models in all schools will help all teachers become language teachers and address student needs. The site facilitator model would boost that training for teachers.

However, research shows that more intensive, longer-term, bilingual programs help students learning English catch up to their peers academically.

Some parents, like Reyes, want their children to learn Spanish and not forget their culture. Rossie wants the same.

“I get that we have to learn English. But I think that it's not always good learning English. Because sometimes you can forget your own language,” she said.

The district actually has a dual language program, but only two schools in the district are a part of it: Mt. Rose K-8 Academy of Languages and Jessie Beck Elementary School. Through the program, students receive some of their academic content in English and some in Spanish each day. Advocates say it helps students become bilingual and more academically successful.

Beck parent Rachel Stepina leads a committee of parents dedicated to dual language learning.

“A program that allows for academic content instruction in the child's native language, or their home language, has been proven to be the most efficient way of closing the academic achievement gaps that we see,” Stepina said.

But two barriers block EL students from accessing the program. The two schools that run it are in neighborhoods with low EL populations. And the certification and hiring process for bilingual teachers is onerous.

Rossie did not attend a dual language school, but since first grade she has been going to one-on-one tutoring through UNR’s E.L. Cord Foundation Center for Learning and Literacy. Her mom coaches in the center and is an undergraduate student in the College of Education.

Rossie now reads at an 11th-grade level and helps out other students when she can.

“It feels really good. Like, I remember in sixth grade there was this girl who only spoke Spanish. She didn't know any English and I was surprised because I knew English, but I always spoke Spanish. And the teachers would always sit me with her to help her out,” Rossie said. “She didn't end up staying for long but I think I taught her a lot of English by that point.”

While it’s unclear exactly what is next for the district, Waugh wants to push the site facilitator model across the district, open a welcome center for new-to-country families, and create staffing guidelines that take EL student proficiency levels into account.

And District Superintendent Susan Enfield gave the Nevada State Legislature’s money committees four additional areas where the district would like to see investment for EL students: more pre-kindergarten seats, more pathways into higher-level coursework, more small-group tutoring, and even an expansion of the dual language programs.

Jose Davila IV is a corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project.

This story is part of “More than Words,” a Report for America initiative that brought together newsrooms covering Latino communities in eight states to examine the impact of language barriers on the social, economic and educational advancement of Latinos.

As a note of disclosure, the Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents owns the license to this station.

Jose Davila IV is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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