When I asked Brianna Walker from Blackstone Valley Prep Junior High on Tuesday to describe what makes a successful multilingual learner (MLL) classroom, her answer was succinct and profound.
“It’s where the kids are not afraid to do a challenging task and then get feedback,” Walker, who leads the MLL program at her school, told me. “That’s good teaching in general, but MLL specifically.”
I was asking because the latest Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System (RICAS) results are out and they’re entirely underwhelming again – except for one crucial (and growing) cohort.
Students who have tested out of an MLL program within the last three years are out-performing the state as a whole in English language arts (34 percent to 33 percent), and they’re neck-and-neck with the statewide average in math (30 percent to 29 percent).
So why does that matter?
The MLL population in Rhode Island has doubled over the last decade, from 9,000 students in 2013 to more than 18,000 students this year, and those students – many of whom are newcomers to the country – are projected to be the fastest-growing cohort in our state for years to come.
Too often we hear about all the negatives, often in the form of racist stereotypes, that come with the influx of multilingual learners to our state. They’re a drain on resources, critics say. They’re dragging traditional English-first students down, other complain.
But students who prove they can complete an MLL program in our state – completion involves passing a literacy-based exam – are setting themselves up to be tremendous assets for our economy. You’d be hard pressed to find a Rhode Island company that isn’t looking for bilingual employees at this point.
And those students are proving to be a true success story within otherwise woeful RICAS results.
“It really has to do with getting them the foundational skills they need,” Walker told me. Since most MLL students come in as Spanish speakers, the best ESL-certified teachers can help students use their native language to improve their English skills.
Walker said that helping students move from being labeled a multilingual learner to a traditional track is among her top goals, although she acknowledges that the pace at which a student moves through an MLL program depends on that skills they have when they enter school.
In the case of the RICAS results, the 34 percent proficiency level in English is based on 1,500 students who have exited MLL programs within the last three years. There were another 7,500 English-learning students who took the exam last spring, and only 5.5 percent were proficient in English and 7.2 percent were proficient in math.
“This is a great story,” Julie Nora, the director of the International Charter School, a dual-language school in Pawtucket, said.
Nora said too many people attach a stigma to students learning English for the first time, and they assume the children won’t be able to learn.
“Because they don’t speak English when they enter, we think there’s a deficit to them,” Nora said. “When they are in structured programs, they will be successful.”
To the credit of state leaders, the growing multilingual learner population has increasingly become a top priority. He doesn’t ever get credit for this, but former House speaker Nicholas Mattiello, who was one of the most conservative Democrats in the State House, supported increased funding for those students back in 2018.
Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green is best known now for the state takeover of Providence schools, but she came to Rhode Island from New York after helping to develop that state’s blueprint for multilingual learners. She’s done the same here, developing a clear plan to offer high-quality instruction, add more ESL-certificated teachers, and embrace those students rather than placate them.
“It’s gone beyond being an urban conversation to being a statewide conversation,” said David Sienko, director of the office of student, community, and academic supports at the Rhode Island Department of Education.
The Rhode Island Department of Education is planning another big ask from the state in the next budget, requesting an additional $20 million in funding for multilingual learners.
Judging by the RICAS results, lawmakers would be foolish not to consider the investment.