Advocates say R.I. must keep up with increase in multilingual learners. Not the other way around

Two bills seek to expand multilingual teacher workforce and expand supports for students

By: - April 6, 2023 3:00 am
young man in floral short sleeved shirt at podium in front of bookcase

Marco Lima, a senior at TIMES2 STEM Academy, speaks about his experience as a multilingual student. (Photo by Kevin G. Andrade/Rhode Island Current)

Spanish was Marco Lima’s first language, the one he spoke at home with his family from Guatemala. That began to change around second grade.

“In second grade, I remember being excited to speak with another classmate in Spanish,” Lima, 18, a senior at TIMES2 STEM Academy in Providence, said in an interview.  “Then, when the teacher walked in, she shut it down. It was like, ‘Class is starting now and we knew to switch back to English.”

That one moment symbolized for him how one culture can dominant another.

“You get the usual compliments that are praising you for one language (English) over another,” Lima said.

Now Lima is an activist with Young Voices Rhode Island. His was among a chorus of voices Tuesday in the Rhode Island State House Library calling for the passage of bills addressing the needs of Multilingual Language Learners in the state. The term refers to students using multiple languages to learn, beyond focusing on English fluency.

“Too many of us, or our families, have experienced shame or trauma for speaking languages other than English at schools or in other public spaces,” Erin Papa, the founding director of the Coalition for a Multilingual Rhode Island, told the gathering. “Rhode Island is ripe for transformation.”

The coalition gathered as two bills make their way through the General Assembly that advocates say are necessary for multilingual learners to receive the best education possible.

“Historically these students have been viewed through a deficit lens,” said Paige Clausius-Parks, executive director of Rhode Island KIDS COUNT. In the past people viewed fluency in another language as taking away from other subject areas, but she pointed out that multiple studies show the opposite to be true.

According to KIDS COUNT, multilingual students representing a combined total of 92 languages account for 11% of students in Rhode Island schools. The vast majority are concentrated in the cities of Providence, Woonsocket, Central Falls, and Pawtucket where combined they make up 27% of the student body. 

But that is changing. Clausius-Parks pointed to data showing that since 2016, multilingual learners have grown from 3% to 16% of Newport’s student population to back up this point.

According to KIDS COUNT, third grade multilingual language students scored significantly lower than the general population in math and English/language arts assessments. Only 11% were proficient in math and 20% percent in English language assessments in 2021, compared to 40% and 52% respectively for the general population. 

Teacher shortage

Advocates argued that the ongoing nationwide teacher shortage is playing a role in poor outcomes for multilingual learners; it presents an opportunity for change as well. 

“We are going to ensure that our teachers are multilingual and can communicate with our youth,” Rep. David Morales, of Providence, told the gathering. “Our students deserve these investments, but mostly, we deserve a Rhode Island that takes pride in being multilingual.

The two bills the coalition rallied around are the Multilingual Educators Investment Act and the Support and Access to Bilingual Education Act.

The Multilingual Educators Investment Act, sponsored by Morales, would set aside $2 million in scholarship money to cover tuition and fees for those seeking a multilingual education certification while studying at Rhode Island College or the University of Rhode Island. They would then be required, within one year of graduation, to teach at an urban core or urban ring school for a minimum of two years. 

In 2020, only 5% of teachers in Rhode Island held some sort of dual language program certification, according to Kids Count.

The second, sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chair Sen. Sandra Cano, of Pawtucket, would create a fund of an as yet undetermined amount in the Rhode Island Department of Education to support multilingual learners across the state. 

The need for individuals in our society to speak more than one language is becoming increasingly apparent,” Cano said. “As a 3-year-old, my daughter is already bilingual and could potentially become trilingual. That’s because I am being intentional about that.”

Historically these students have been viewed through a deficit lens.

– Paige Clausius-Parks, executive director of Rhode Island KIDS COUNT

Recent calls for change in policy

The rally comes a little more than a week after a Rhode Island Foundation report included multilingual learner initiatives as a prime area of focus for policymakers.

“Clearly in this state, the number of multilingual learners has been growing,” Rhode Island Foundation President and CEO Neil D. Steinberg said. “If we don’t address their needs adequately, there will be gaps.”

For Marcela Betancur, executive director of the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University, getting there means any extra money funneled to schools to support MLLs needs to be spent beyond faculty professional development. 

“The money needs to be allocated to districts seeing their multilingual learner population increase so they can prepare their staff,” Betancur said in an interview. “Multilingual learner education and information shouldn’t just be focused on teachers, but across the district and building staff.”

Though his time in the K to 12 school system is coming to an end, Lima hopes to improve education for multilingual students like him in the future.

“We’re going to create action,” he said. “We’re going to actually make change because it’s tiring to keep protesting and not see any change in our community.“


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