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UPDATE: The Massachusetts state legislature passed new legislation Nov. 15, 2017, that grants schools the flexibility to decide how best to serve their English language learners. Voters banned bilingual education in 2002, limiting schools’ autonomy. Read the text of the bill here.
BOSTON — When the Boston Public Schools opened the Margarita Muñiz Academy in 2012, it was a first-of-its-kind dual-language high school meant to address issues faced by the city’s growing Hispanic population. At the time, Hispanic students were both the most likely to drop out of the city’s schools and the least likely to enroll in college when compared to black, white and Asian students. They still are, but as the academy enters its sixth full year, its student outcomes are drawing praise from a variety of sources, even while administrators note that steep challenges remain.
The idea behind the Muñiz Academy, named for the longtime principal of Boston’s first dual-language elementary school (the Rafael Hernandez K-8 school), was that many Hispanic students would do better in schools that support their cultural background and, with it, the Spanish language. In Boston Public Schools, roughly 39 percent of Hispanic high school students are classified as “English-language learners” because they don’t speak English fluently. Perhaps not surprisingly, these students drop out at higher rates than any other major subgroup. But not at the Muñiz Academy. In 2016, 75 percent of its ELL students graduated, a rate 14 percentage points higher than the district’s average for this group and higher even than the overall graduation rate for BPS.
Meanwhile, on state tests, the school tends to track with the district average, despite having higher percentages of ELLs and low-income students, who might be expected to fall short. And the dropout rate among the first Muñiz cohort, the class of 2016, was just 2.5 percent, compared with a district average of 10 percent. (Some of Muñiz’s initial cohort transferred to other schools or moved out of the district.)
The school’s graduation rates and test performance have earned praise, says Dania Vázquez, Muñiz’s founding headmaster, but she doesn’t want to rest on it. “We don’t think we’ve cracked the nut yet,” she says. For Vázquez, those numbers still leave far too many students without a diploma or the skills they need to succeed in college. Nevertheless, the school’s record lends credence to a new districtwide focus on supporting students’ language and culture to foster academic achievement.
The Muñiz Academy is an open-enrollment school, so administrators can’t restrict who attends. While it is unusual for students to enter the school after sophomore year, they may enroll in any grade — and with almost no ability to speak, read or write in one of the two languages. Yet all students begin dual-language college-prep classes immediately. They don’t start by learning numbers and letters in their less-familiar language like kindergartners. “We get them in high school, not when they’re little,” Vázquez says. “We have to make space for them to access the content.”
That demands flexibility on the part of teachers. Inside Matty Long’s 10th-grade biology class, students chatted in English and Spanish as they settled into their seats one day in April. As part of a unit on the human digestive system, teams of students had engineered replicas using things like paint rollers, balloons, funnels and tissue boxes, and this was the day they would present their designs.
Long taught this unit in English, but the first group to present spoke in Spanish. They narrated while they put a piece of bread into a funnel at the top of their model, added soda to mimic stomach acid and watched the bread move through the tubes and balloons that portrayed the rest of the digestive system. Long smiled in encouragement as the students referenced technical vocabulary like “vesícula biliar” (gallbladder) and “intestino delgado” (small intestine). The class listened attentively. No one seemed confused. When it came time for questions and feedback, Long and other students spoke in English. Nobody missed a beat, including the presenters.
Sticking to a prescribed language matters less than making sure students understand the content and participate in class, Long says. That’s particularly true for immigrant students who know very little English. “Things the kids say out loud are the things they’re remembering,” she says. “The more they talk, the better.” The back-and-forth also ensures that all students hear key vocabulary and scientific terms in both Spanish and English.
Vázquez tells her staff to create a structure for language use in their classrooms, but she says the school embraces the language skills that students bring with them. This is important because students don’t learn the same content twice, once in English and once in Spanish. They learn something in one language and build on it in the other. Long’s classroom offers one example of how fluid language can be at the Muñiz Academy.
The exception is in the two humanities classes students take every day, one in each language. There, students must use the designated language — English or Spanish — in class discussions and written assignments, and their grades depend on it. (Administrators group students with similar language abilities together for these classes.) In Francisco de la Rosa’s ninth-grade humanities classroom, signs remind students of this rule: “En este salón de clase hablamos, pensamos y respiramos exclusivamente en español.” Translation: “In this classroom, we speak, think and breathe exclusively in Spanish.”
That’s the goal, anyway. But many students can feel lost trying to speak or write with academic vocabulary in the language they don’t know as well. Even students whose first language was Spanish say they struggled, particularly as freshmen, in Spanish-language classes. Claudette Bautista, a 2017 Muñiz graduate who now attends Lesley University, was born in the Dominican Republic but spent her K-8 years in Boston, learning in English. She had taken Spanish-language classes and, as a native speaker, breezed through them. But at Muñiz, she was learning subjects like history and math in Spanish. “That’s what made it difficult,” she says.
Most Muñiz students have a dominant language, and the school population is roughly split between English- and Spanish-dominant, so the dual-language model offers everyone a chance to shine at some point. There are times, for example, when Spanish-dominant students are the experts who can help the English-dominant students. They have the opportunity to feel the pride of “being the star,” says assistant headmaster Dan Abramoski. And then, positions are reversed. “I think it creates compassion among the students and staff and for people who are learning, and that transfers over to art or math or science,” Abramoski says. This can be a huge help for Spanish-dominant students, who would normally be considered academically deficient by a U.S. school because they don’t speak English. At Muñiz, from the start, “they can be excellent in math, in Spanish,” Abramoski says.
That was true for Oniel Espinal, a junior at Muñiz. He came to the United States from the Dominican Republic, entering fifth grade in Boston. At his middle school, he says he felt discouraged from speaking Spanish in the building. His academic program focused on learning English as quickly as possible. Even speaking Spanish outside of the classroom created problems, because it invited bullying from peers who suspected conversations in Spanish were about them. English was his stronger language for reading and writing when he started at Muñiz, but now, if he doesn’t know how to say something in English, he can say it in Spanish without fear of reprisal. “It feels much better like that,” Oniel says. “There should be more schools like it.”
Dual-language education has surged in popularity, driven in part by parents who speak only English and see the value of raising bilingual children who can more easily navigate a globalized world. But Boston leaders see dual-language programs as a way to better serve students from the city’s large immigrant communities and, ultimately, the city’s employers and institutions. While Muñiz is its only dual-language high school, the district has four Spanish-English dual-language programs in elementary and K-8 schools. It also opened a Haitian Creole-English early childhood center this year in Mattapan and is exploring a similar program for the Cape Verdean community.
The approach is a huge shift from what BPS superintendent Tommy Chang experienced when he moved to California from Taiwan at age 6. “Come to school in America and your language gets stomped away,” Chang says. He wants the district to affirm and sustain the languages and cultures of all BPS students, 45 percent of whom speak a first language other than English.
Mayor Marty Walsh, the child of Irish immigrants, is a champion of this idea. Economically, he sees the vast promise of a bilingual workforce. Citing figures from a New American Economy report, Walsh says Massachusetts businesses posted nearly 15,000 positions seeking bilingual candidates in 2015. That’s a 160 percent increase from just five years before. “When you think about the future economics of the world, it’s not an English world,” Walsh says.
While creating new dual-language programs is on the district’s agenda, it may be some time before there’s a second school like the Muñiz Academy in Boston — or maybe anywhere. Finding teachers who can lead high school-level courses in two languages is hard. Accommodating students across a wide spectrum of language proficiency in both languages is even harder. And at Muñiz, 64 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged and 86 percent as “high needs.” Some of them enroll in the high school reading at a fourth-grade level in their stronger language. Even in more affluent school districts, dual-language programs are uncommon at the high school level. Conor Williams, founder of the Dual Language Learners National Work Group at New America, an education think tank in Washington, D.C., says he seldom sees dual-language programs at the high school level, let alone standalone, whole-school programs. “It is pretty rare that a district is doing dual immersion and is able to meaningfully extend it into high school,” Williams says.
Dual-language programs most commonly exist as subsets of traditional high schools, where select students take classes in a language other than English, though generally not for a full half of each day. And those students must have participated in such a program since elementary school or be able to demonstrate bilingual skills. The Muñiz Academy is unique in the breadth of challenges it strives to overcome while teaching in two languages. “I admire them for taking this on,” says Patricia Gándara, a bilingual education researcher and co-director of The Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA.
But Muñiz Academy’s founders started the school because of these challenges, not despite them. And there does seem to be a clear pay-off for students from the model, particularly English-learners. Research shows that when such students get instruction in their native language, they have greater educational success. One reason seems to be that it gives them access to grade-level content that otherwise might be unavailable for months or years as they learn English but end up falling behind in other subjects.
The school’s approach is also steeped in decades of research about the effect of cultural affirmation on student engagement and performance. Marilú Alvarado Hernández, a member of the founding team of teachers, describes the Muñiz Academy’s existence as critical for the well-being of the predominantly Latino student body who passes through its doors — and not just because they get to learn in Spanish. “We’re not just talking about language, we’re talking about what this language brings,” Alvarado Hernández says. “This will be the only place in their lives that supports them like this, where they can be proud to be Latinos.”
The focus on culture at Muñiz Academy is strong — visitors see it on classroom walls, in the curriculum and at school events. The school band performed “Latin Gold” and “Burritos to Go” in their spring concert, freshmen read the literature of Gabriel García Márquez in their humanities class and students discussed the May 1 “Day Without Immigrants” during a morning of workshops leading up to the annual event. Teachers’ classrooms are decorated with flags from various Latin American countries and posters with quotes by prominent Latinos in the U.S. and abroad. Their classroom libraries stock books by Isabel Allende and other Latin American literary giants.
Muñiz Academy teachers, 65 percent of whom are Latino, strive to create an environment that celebrates their students’ heritage and allows them to embrace this piece of their identities. For some students, that fills an aching need.
Beyoncé Stringer, a sophomore, is Dominican and African-American and grew up speaking only English at home. She always strongly identified with her Latina heritage and long wished she could speak Spanish, singing along to the songs of Selena without knowing what they meant. When she heard about the Muñiz Academy, she made it her mission to enroll.
“I always knew that if I didn’t try to just be hands-on about Spanish that I wouldn’t learn at all,” Beyoncé says. She went up to her peers in the first months of her freshman year, introducing herself in poorly accented Spanish, trying her best to string words together to get her point across. She laughs that some of them teased her, but they spoke back in Spanish, giving her more exposure to the language she so wanted to master. “My friends now don’t even know that they help me but they help me a lot,” she says. “By speaking Spanish to me, they help.”
Over the course of her first year at the Muñiz Academy, Beyoncé’s Spanish rapidly improved. Her mother, Suhey Mercedes Martinez, has been shocked by the transformation. After the first day of school, Martinez called the Muñiz Academy office, saying she thought the program would be too hard for her daughter. “I was really worried about her making it out of that school,” Martinez says. But after enrolling without knowing how to read, write or speak Spanish, Beyoncé ended the year having made significant progress. “As the year went on she was speaking it,” Martinez says. “She understood a lot of what was said.”
All of a sudden, Beyoncé could have conversations in Spanish with her grandfather, tearing down a language barrier caused by his limited English and her nonexistent Spanish. “I’m real proud of her,” Martinez says. “She committed herself to learning.”
Beyoncé also credits her Spanish as a Second Language teacher, Alice Viera, with some of her progress. Viera is relentless about supporting students and giving them the confidence to try. That can be half the battle with teenagers worried about looking foolish using an unfamiliar language.
Because so many of the students in Viera’s class are Latino, she says she spends a good amount of time talking about cultural identity. It forms the foundation of her first unit, and students continue talking about it throughout the year. Viera says many of her students enter the school feeling like they don’t quite belong anywhere. “They weren’t fully part of the Hispanic community because they didn’t have the language, but they didn’t fit in the American community,” Viera says.
She gives her students opportunities to discuss their cultural and linguistic insecurities openly, helping students find their place in the world as they work toward Spanish fluency. This identity support contributes to one of the more intangible benefits of the Muñiz Academy, but one that parents most appreciate.
Delhia Emanuel is one of those parents. Her daughter, a 2017 graduate, always spoke both languages but really came into her own as a Latina during her years at the Muñiz Academy, according to Emanuel. “She has grown a lot,” Emanuel says. “She’s proud of who she is. And the best part is she can walk the walk and talk the talk in both languages. It brings me to tears. Once you have that, no one can take that away from you.”
Still, the Muñiz Academy has its critics. Some don’t believe taxpayer dollars should be spent helping students maintain a language that isn’t English. Since 2002, official state policy in Massachusetts has been that English-learners should be educated in English-only classrooms. The Muñiz Academy exists only because of an exception built into the law. Headmaster Vázquez talks about the school’s existence as a revolution, although she thinks elsewhere in the world it might not seem so special. “In our country we seriously do not understand the value of multilingualism,” Vázquez says.
Also, she finds her students face low expectations. “People don’t think our Latino kids are necessarily capable of learning in two languages,” Vázquez says. “That somehow . . . they can only learn one thing at a time.” But every day she watches her students prove that’s not true.
Vázquez and other Muñiz Academy leaders are working to spread the Muñiz model. They hope to create a professional development center to help educators from around the country learn from their work. Meanwhile, Chang hopes to find a way for the high school to add grades seven and eight. The primary barrier at this point is space, and a possible Muñiz expansion will be discussed as part of the district’s BuildBPS facilities master plan process. Demand for an expanded program is already there.
Ana Solano-Campos, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston and an expert in serving English-learners, sees the school as creating a new narrative about dual-language education. “What the school really has been able to do is, in a way, they transformed the discourse around what dual-language and bilingual education is and who it is for,” Solano-Campos says. “As a college prep high school, it’s giving students opportunities to excel that they might not have been able to have.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, with support from the Education Writers Association. Sign up for our newsletter.