Education

Double Speak

An innovative charter school in Pawtucket addresses the increasing need for bilingual education

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I have long admired International Charter School (ICS), not only for its dual-language programs in Portuguese/English and Spanish/English but also for its emphasis on cultural and social-emotional competence. When we were looking at elementary schools for our first-born, hoping to find one that would see our kid as more than a test score, we fell hard for ICS. Though our family speaks English exclusively at home, we knew from experience and research that early immersive language learning provided children with unmatchable opportunities to learn another language, think beyond their local communities and cultures and gain a cognitive advantage conferred through thoughtful two-way language immersion. Alas, we did not come up winners in the charter school lottery and chose what turned out to be another wonderful public school. It’s likely that some of you experienced a similar result: last year, 779 students applied for 54 available seats.

Founded in 2001 and located in Pawtucket’s Oak Hill neighborhood, ICS serves 324 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Students devote half of the school day to learning in English and the other half to either Portuguese or Spanish, moving through an integrated curriculum. Though students enter ICS with language and literacy skills that span a wide continuum, ICS meets all students and their families where they are, moving students through their dual language studies even if they do not speak a word of English, Spanish or Portuguese at the outset, sharing information in families’ home languages, and offering language learning support to all. English Language Learners develop competence in both their home language and English as they move through school. Native English speakers gain skills in a second language as they gain academic skills, and all families can support their children’s learning in their home language. This is a key distinction from a standard English as a Second Language approach, which devalues students’ home languages and elevates English language acquisition. In a dual language setting, students’ native language skills are necessarily assets.

Nationally, the number of two-way immersion programs has increased more than ten-fold since 2000, and dual language programs are increasing within Rhode Island, albeit at a slower rate. In addition to Leviton Dual Language School, a Spanish-English Providence Public School, South Kingstown and Pawtucket have launched dual language initiatives for which ICS provided professional development. Knowing that many Rhode Island families are on the wrong side of dual language education supply and demand, I asked Dr. Julie Nora, ICS’s director, why such programs weren’t proliferating at a faster rate. Nora shared that one limiting factor is a chronic short supply of qualified dual language teachers. Dual language educators must be proficient in the language of instruction, language learning strategies, pedagogical skills and mastery of subject material, and such educators aren’t entering the profession to fill demand. The United States Department of Education has designated bilingual K-12 educators as an area of critical need in Rhode Island every year since 1990.

ICS must also address the need for curriculum and testing material translation. In order to comply with Common Core mandates, Nora and her team require substantial additional funding to translate essential curriculum; Portuguese versions of Common Core-compliant curriculum are a particular concern. Because ICS is a public charter school, with no funding above and beyond other public elementary schools, the school’s board of trustees, families and community support such fundraising challenges, which are ongoing.

ICS also strongly values cross-cultural competence, viewing the cultural diversity of its students as a further asset. “Documenting Cultural Communities,” an annual third-grade social studies project, exemplifies ICS’s thoughtful approach to culture, families and learning. Led by artist in residence Mary Beth Meehan – an ICS parent well known for the large-format selections from her “Seen/Unseen” portrait series that currently grace buildings in downtown Providence – this ten-week project puts cameras into students’ hands, teaching them to document their lives in images and words. Reflecting on the project, Meehan commented, “Every year, the kids amaze me with how rich their lives are.”

With our city’s cultural and linguistic diversity in mind, ICS provides a powerful example of how to educate students respectfully and equitably by using their diversity as an asset rather than an obstacle to standardization. While it’s clearly unfortunate that growth of such programs is necessarily complicated by the scarcity of qualified teachers and other factors, this is a problem that we need to lean into so that many more of our young people can become the bilingual, biliterate and culturally receptive adults on whom Rhode Island’s future depends.

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