Mistral Elementary is home to the district's popular Dual Immersion program, which has instruction in both English and Spanish with a goal of students reaching fluency and literacy in both languages. District staff has sought to maintain a careful balance between English-fluent and ELL students, but enrollment tends to be slightly lopsided in favor of English-fluent children.
The upshot of the report is that the district's Dual Immersion program is falling short of the theoretical goal of raising performance among the district's ELL students. While the 17-page report is filled with caveats about statistical significance, there are some standardized test scores showing that English learners from the Mistral program perform worse than their peers in traditional programs.
The firm Hanover Research, digging into a decade of test score data, concluded that native English-speaking students "generally have better academic performance" than their peers at traditional schools in the district, including higher standardized test scores — STAR tests in middle school and Common Core-aligned tests in high school — as well as higher grade-point averages (GPAs).
The same can't be said for ELL students in the program. The study found English learners do not have higher yearly GPAs in middle school and high school after attending Mistral, nor do they perform better on state standardized tests.
This runs contrary to research showing that dual-language programs generally narrow the achievement gap for ELL students, albeit at a slow rate. The report cautions that "gaps" in test scores may continue for three to seven years, but by middle school, ELL students should be performing similarly to English-speaking students.
Board members reviewed the report at an April 28 study session after Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph and some of the trustees visited model dual-language programs across the country, including schools in Hollister, Chula Vista and Charlotte, North Carolina. Rudolph told the Voice that now felt like the right time to take a "deep dive" into the performance data at Mistral and look at best practices, given that it's been in the Strategic Plan for years, and parents at the school are calling on the district to extend dual-language support into middle school.
Last November, Mistral parents called on board members to extend the reach of the Dual Immersion program to the district's middle schools, arguing that important gains in dual literacy languish after kids head to Crittenden and Graham middle schools — neither of which offer core classes in Spanish.
As is the norm with major district decisions, Rudolph said he plans to convene a task force to study best practices and possible changes to the Dual Immersion program, as well as what kind of support the district could provide for Mistral students in middle school. He said the research shows ELL students ought to be performing better at Mistral than the test scores show, which means the school may need to change the way students are taught in Spanish and English.
Among the possible changes, Rudolph said the task force could consider converting the Dual Immersion program to a so-called 50/50 model. Mistral students currently entering kindergarten receive 90 percent of instruction in Spanish and 10 percent in English, shifting more and more toward parity each year until students are taught in both languages at an equal level. Under the 50/50 model students receive instruction in equal parts Spanish and English from day one through the end of fifth grade.
But it's unclear what effect changing the structure of the Dual Immersion program would have. The Hanover report points out that research is "inconclusive" regarding which model is more effective, and that both tend to achieve "similar outcomes" that are superior to that of students in non-DI schools.
Changing the dual immersion program to 50/50 isn't the only thing to consider. There is a wealth of information, research and best practices for dual-language programs, which have been growing in popularity across the country. One presentation by San Jose State University Professor Kathryn Lindholm-Leary states that 40 years of research shows Dual Immersion, when done right, can bring ELL student performance above that of English-speaking kids in mainstream classes.
Among the recommendations, Lindholm-Leary suggests that Dual Immersion instruction should be enriched, rather than remedial, and include language and literature across all content areas. Teachers can also be creative about small changes, such as choosing classes to teach in either language — Spanish in fourth-grade social studies might be best suited for teaching kids about Spanish missions, for example — and should switch between Spanish and English on a regular basis rather than in "chunks" on alternate days or weeks.
Mistral parent Trish Gilbert, an outspoken advocate in favor of expanding Dual Immersion in the district, told the Voice she hopes the task force and the district will take a cautious approach to upending the program based solely on test scores. She argues that the school really just needs more time for the dust to settle.
Dual Immersion's history includes a churn of administrative and staffing changes and being separated from Castro Elementary just three years ago. The school has had four principals in the last seven years, teachers and students have dealt with ongoing construction, and the school doesn't have a lot of long-tenured teachers, she said.
"I tried to remind board members that, in addition to staffing changes, eight of our 16 classrooms have a teacher who is new to Mistral or new to that grade," Gilbert said. "On top of that, we've been without a playground for a year and a half."
If the district makes major changes to the Dual Immersion program in the next few years, Gilbert said she believes the district will have muddied the waters and will have no idea whether to attribute improvements in student performance to the changes, or simply to more capable teachers with an additional three years of teaching under their belts.
Mistral parent Kristen McGuire-Husky said in an email she is glad to see the district take a serious approach to closing the achievement gap at the school and improving the program for all students at the school. Her hope, she said, is that the task force will work with the new principal and the community "before embarking on any major changes."
Rudolph said the intent isn't to dismantle what already works well for the Mistral community, and that the board's goal is to take an already-strong program and help it reach a nationally renowned status. Part of that, he said, includes making sure all students, including ELL students, are getting the same benefits from the program.
"It's not about ripping Mistral apart," he said. "It's about improving Mistral so that it performs at an extremely high level, and can be looked at as a model school across the nation."
Those changes don't have to be big, he said. Simple practices like testing students for fluency in both Spanish and English — rather than just English — would be a good start, or reinforcing the idea that kids should enjoy reading in both languages at a young age.
Although it was less of a focus at the study session last month, district officials are weighing what staffing and costs it would take to support bilingual education programs at the middle-school level, providing continuity for students graduating out of Mistral Elementary.
But hiring teachers with Bilingual, Crosscultural, Language and Academic Development (BCLAD) certificates to support Dual Immersion students means paying a premium to serve a relatively small number of middle school students, raising questions about logistics and cost effectiveness. The district has yet to release figures on how expensive it would be to support Dual Immersion at Graham and Crittenden, but districts frequently offer $5,000 to $6,000 in signing bonuses to BCLAD teachers.
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