Ailena Ketner remembers the letters her grandmother used to get from her bilingual first-grade students about how she changed their lives.

Ketner hopes to make that big of a difference with her own dual language first-grade class at Alice Contreras Elementary School

“I remember going into her classroom and helping her even during the summers and seeing what an impact she made in her kid’s lives she still has once they graduated high school,” Ketner said. “I want that for myself, too.”

Ketner is teaching one of 14 dual language classes at the campus with a goal of helping students learning English succeed. Fort Worth ISD had gains in standardized testing scores for those taking the test in English, but Spanish test-takers did not perform as well.

Cloris Rangel, executive director over multilingual education, said the gap in test results does not provide the full picture.

“As a whole, yes, you’ll see that, but then it’ll vary depending on the different campuses,” Rangel said. “There are a smaller number of students who are testing in Spanish than in English. When you have a smaller group and more students within that group don’t score as well, you’ll see a larger percentage there.”

The district is taking into account that English-learners are considered at-risk and wants to be intentional about the support provided to them, Rangel said.This includes curriculum changes, more training for teachers and committees on campuses to help determine who takes the test in Spanish. The students are not just learning the content, but they’re also learning a new language.

In Fort Worth ISD, 35.5% of students are considered emergent bilingual or English learners, according to the Texas Education Agency. 

How does the Spanish test differ, and who takes it?

Texas is one of few states that allows standardized testing in Spanish, but it still only is available until fifth grade, Rangel said. After that, students have to take the test in English.

To determine who takes the test in Spanish, each campus has a language proficiency assessment committee that includes the English Second Language staff, the administrator on the campus and a parent of a student learning English. There can be more members on the committee, she said.

The decision on if a student will test in Spanish is supposed to be made on an individual basis. Any student participating in a dual language program can test in English or Spanish, but the Spanish test should be for students able to demonstrate their knowledge of the skills in that language. 

Additionally, it can vary by subject. Fort Worth ISD did not have the same number of students across subjects taking the test in Spanish. For example, 755 third-graders took the reading test in Spanish but only 66 third-graders took it in math.

How is the curriculum improving?

Chief Academic Officer Marcey Sorenson said the district’s efforts in improving literacy and reading not only apply to English first language students, but to English learners, too.

“It’s a similar pattern to what we’re doing with literacy, and, in general, it really is about ground up, transformative practice,” she said.

The district does not remove Spanish from the students. Instead, it works to make the students literate and proficient in both languages, Sorenson said. That starts with using evidence-based practices in bi-literacy.

Teachers are going to a reading academy for Spanish speakers just as they are for English-learners, she said. The district recently adopted the Amplify curriculum, which provides English and Spanish materials. It also adopted materials for intervention and scaffolding — or breaking material into ‘chunks’ — in Spanish.

“We have to start at the early grades,” Sorenson said. “We have a language allocation model in our elementary schools to ensure that we’re building that foundational core in both English and Spanish.”

As Fort Worth ISD makes curriculum changes, it provides the curriculum in both English and Spanish for dual language classrooms, Rangel said. Any supplemental materials also are bilingual and reviewed to ensure they meet high-quality language standards. Those materials could be needed for dual language special education or gifted and talented students.

Ketner is at a campus that recently improved to an A-rating by state accountability standards. She and her colleagues are using the data available to them to know what areas students are struggling in and come up with solutions to fix them.

Sometimes that means having extra tutoring after school or spending more time on a lesson with a student. Ketner said what is most important to her and her fellow teachers is making sure all students succeed.

Rangel said the district is working with teachers who are in dual language classrooms to make sure they can properly help students. That includes making sure they have the right certifications up to date. 

More so, Fort Worth ISD works to provide curriculum that is structured so students learn the knowledge in the lessons at the same time they develop their language skills.

Every year, students are assessed on their English proficiency. Rangel said they want teachers to look at what is needed for the test and come up with strategies to help them not only pass the test but move from passing to advanced.

As students make the transition from elementary school to middle school and will not be able to take the test in Spanish anymore, Sorenson said, the district provides professional development to middle school teachers to also teach them about the appropriate curriculum for students learning English.

“We want to make sure that as kids are transitioning, not only do we have the instructional support, but we have the curricular resources to support them as they’re transitioning,” she said.

The practices the district is using are research-based, Sorenson said.

“It’s the kind of foundational work that our kids need to learn to be proficient readers both in English and Spanish,” she said. “And in the work that our teachers need to ground themselves in learning so that they can feel confident and efficacious in teaching our kids and how to learn how to read, speak, write competently in both languages.”

Not erasing Spanish, but improving two languages

In Ketner’s class on Aug. 30, students learned how to segment and blend syllables. She showed the students a photo of something they know, like soup, and students said the word in Spanish.

“Sopa,” they said in unison.

Then, she pulled a popsicle stick with a student’s name from a cup to choose her “maestro o maestra” and the student stood up, said the word, and counted the syllables.

“So-pa, sopa,” the students practiced together multiple times. Then, they wrote all the words on a dry erase board and Ketner checked each of their progress.

After that, it was on to the next word.

She starts the lesson in Spanish so the students learn the skills with their native language. Then they are able to do the same thing with English words, too, while they’re learning the language.

“Whatever we do in Spanish, they can do the same exact thing in English,” Ketner said. “They talk about what they hear, the sounds they hear, what letters make up those sounds.”

Ailena Ketner, a teacher at Alice D. Contreras Elementary, teaches bilingual education. Ketner is in one of 14 dual language classes at the campus with a goal of helping emergent bilingual students succeed. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Her classroom — and other parts of the hallways in the school — are labeled with one color of English words, like “door,” and another color for Spanish words, like “puerta.” These labels help her with math lessons too, where she focuses on helping the students understand the vocabulary in both languages.

As the district works to improve the scores, Ketner said, she believes any child has the potential to be great. It just depends on the effort the teacher puts in them. 

They’re eager to learn. They love to learn,” she said. “I can tell that they like coming to school. They’re excited. And when they do, let’s say something’s kind of difficult for them, but once they figure it out, you can just see their little faces light up. They’re really good kids.”

Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at kristen.barton@fortworthreport.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here. 

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Kristen Barton

Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. She has previous experience in education reporting for her hometown paper, the Longview News-Journal and her college paper, The Daily...