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Latino, Hmong leaders praise new MMSD bilingual plan

Leopold Elementary School is among the Madison schools that offer dual language immersion classrooms, in which native Spanish speakers and native English speakers learn both languages. Photo by Abigail Becker, Madison Commons

Madison’s Latino and Hmong education leaders are praising the school district for a plan that they say would bring long-needed improvements to how English language learners are taught.

“I think that the plan is actually really good. It’s really, really, really positive,” says Sal Carranza, the co-founder of the Latino Education Council.

With Carranza’s prodding, as well as a push from Hmong community leader Peng Her, the Madison Metropolitan School District has developed a bilingual education plan that would, among other policy changes, offer bilingual education to Hmong students for the first time and also expand bilingual offerings to Spanish-speaking students.

This prong of the district’s efforts focuses on bilingual education and dual language immersion programs, which teach ELLs in both their native language and in English. That’s different from the district’s English as a Second Language, or ESL, services, in which qualified staff members help students in an English-only classroom.

Both of those parts will be addressed in a comprehensive plan addressing English language learner education as a whole—a plan that isn’t finalized yet and will need approval from the Madison school board.

The district says its efforts would help the one-third of MMSD students who are English language learners and whose “academic learning fails to keep pace with native English speakers.”

“We know from research that bilingual education programs are essential for students to be successful long term, and we have an obligation to make sure we’re doing this well,” MMSD Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham said in March. “ESL support just isn’t going to cut it when the ultimate goal is for students not just to acquire language but to acquire the content knowledge and skills that they need to be successful in life. That’s why we’re recommending these shifts.”

The shifts, then, would ensure more students can access the bilingual instruction that the district is required to provide, while also supporting district staff that provides that instruction. The district would improve help for those staff members seeking bilingual certification and provide better training for teachers, staff and administrators on supporting ELL students.

And adequate bilingual education would be available to students regardless of where they live, with the district providing transportation for students who want to access services available elsewhere in the district.

The district’s plan, says Her, is “something that the Hmong community welcomes and wants to participate in,” and he’s tried to ensure Hmong parents voice their support to school board members “to make this happen.”

“A squeaky wheel gets new oil, and if we aren’t squeaky, we don’t get the oil,” Her said. “That’s been one of our challenges for a long time.”

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