ahead of the game
At Framingham’s Potter Road Elementary School, two languages used for lessons
After the Framingham school district expanded its dual-language programs, the Daily News looked closely at the learning method with a three-part series.
A reporter and photographer observed students and teachers at Potter Road Elementary School, and later visited some of the students’ families to learn more about their language background.
Halfway through the project, the COVID-19 crisis touched down in Framingham, forcing a sudden virus-triggered experiment on remote learning.
Dual benefit in the classroom
In Framingham, learning two languages at once makes students stronger
When she needed her students to focus, first-grade teacher Miriam Lapa Silva simply said, “Olê, olê.”
A chorus of 24 voices then sang back, “Olhos em você.”
Children in another class might have answered with, “All eyes on you.” But in Room 8 at Potter Road Elementary School, Lapa Silva spoke to her students only in Portuguese.
This was the second year since the north side school launched its dual-language program, a learning method that has soared in popularity in Framingham and throughout the state. Lapa Silva’s students — a blend of English and Portuguese speakers — spent 70% of their day engulfed in the Portuguese language. In the late afternoon, a different instructor arrived to teach them in English.
Together, students learned each other’s languages, with the goal of becoming fluent in both.
Then, in mid-March, school buildings went dark and learning moved remote. For dual-language programs, the COVID-19 closures have been especially difficult. Children with limited English skills could see their progress toward conquering English — and other subjects — slowed. English-speaking students may struggle to soak up unfamiliar words without sitting beside their native-speaking classmates.
As this fall remains cloudy, Framingham schools are moving to ensure dual-language learners do not fall through the cracks.
The idea is that children of all backgrounds benefit when they learn in two languages at once.
English language learners — just over a quarter of all Framingham Public School students — lag their peers in terms of academic achievement. For instance, 65% of them graduated high school after four years in 2019 in Massachusetts, compared with 88% of all students, according to data from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Experts say dual-language schooling can help. A 2017 study published in the Annual Review of Applied Linguistics study found that high-quality, dual-language programs can close achievement gaps in literacy after five to six years.
It’s likely because it is easier for children to develop academic skills in a language they already know, according to a 2013 article in the journal American Educator.
Then, as they learn English, they can transfer what they’ve learned in their native language to the new one. The programs also help them retain and improve their home languages, as opposed to English-only classrooms where their native language skills can decline.
Meanwhile, English-speaking students attend the dual-language program because their parents believe it challenges their child and gives them a social and economic edge later in life. Research by Montreal’s Concordia University in 2016 found that bilingual toddlers are more adept than monolinguals at solving certain problems, and that children with more practice switching between languages are even better.
In just two years, the district expanded the number of its schools with a dual-language program from one to four of nine. Potter Road’s program, which began in 2018, marked the first time it became available to Portuguese-speaking students in the district.
A wait list swelled after its debut, topping 30 students. This past school year, even as more classrooms opened throughout the district, there was still a wait list of about 50 Portuguese-speaking students.
The demand flies in the face of a 2002 voter initiative that banned bilingual education in Massachusetts, passing with a 61% majority.
Framingham was one of a few communities allowed to teach non-English-speaking students in their native languages during the next 15 years, navigating a cumbersome process to get waivers from the law. Barbieri Elementary School opened a few dual-language classrooms in 1990, joining just a handful in the nation at the time.
We’ve been waiting for this. Because we knew this was the way.
It became a fully dual-language school in the late 1990s.
“We’re lucky we have Framingham. They kept things going while things were very difficult in the state for bilingual education,” said Boston College education professor Patrick Proctor.
Before the English-only law was repealed in 2017, there were few choices for Portuguese-speaking students. Many were taught in their language, but introduced to a little more English every year with the intent of switching them quickly to English-only classrooms. The district plans to phase out that style – called transitional bilingual education. It takes away more than it gives, said Genoveffa Grieci, who oversees the school district’s Bilingual Department.
“What happens is your native language becomes secondary. (Over a few years), you may be bilingual, but you are definitely not biliterate,” said Grieci.
That’s why teachers such as Lapa Silva have been eager about the dual-language expansion.
“We’ve been waiting for this,” said Lapa Silva. “Because we knew this was the way.”
‘We thought he was going to lose it’
As a preschooler, Davi Cordeiro, the son of Brazilian immigrants, gravitated to English.
Swimming in the language, he heard English while talking to classmates, watching television and listening to music. He saw it on store windows and billboards, in books and supermarkets.
His parents — fluent in both English and Portuguese — tried to keep their native tongue alive at home, but struggled against the pervasiveness of English. Their Portuguese conversations with him were one-sided. They’d speak to him in Portuguese and he would respond with confused silence.
“We thought he was going to lose it,” said Paulo Cordeiro, Davi’s father.
A teacher told them Davi barely spoke Portuguese at school and that dual-language might be a good fit. For Davi, a heritage speaker — or a student who has some background in Portuguese but is dominant in English — the suggestion came at the right time.
Linguists say the window for children to soak up a new language is limited — from birth to 10, the brain is like a sponge, able to quickly absorb new languages quickly. But after puberty, it’s less elastic.
Children like Davi — children of immigrants who are overwhelmed by English — are especially vulnerable to native-language loss.
Carina Cordeiro, Davi’s mother, said she wanted him to hold onto his Portuguese so he can talk with their extended Brazilian family members and have improved career prospects.
He was quickly enrolled.
“The first year, he was scared,” said Carina Cordeiro.
He’s begun to speak basic Portuguese at home, his parents said. Learning with other children makes it fun and less daunting, said Davi.
“It was pretty hard, but it got easier and easier every time I tried,” he said.
Recently, the family was curled up on their couch, poring over a book about a cat saved by firefighters. Slowly and carefully, Davi read each Portuguese line aloud to his parents.
His Portuguese words were lightly shaped by an American accent, Paulo Cordeiro noted with a smile.
Different learning styles
Lawrence Wolpe took the reins as Potter Road’s new principal just as the school’s two-way program was implemented. Formerly the school’s assistant principal, he said some parents were reluctant to see the culture of the school change, calling it a “complicated” shift.
But it’s been embraced overall, he said, adding that it’s rare for a parent to remove their child from the program.
“Parents who sign up for this program know that it’s a commitment, that they’re taking a little bit of a leap of faith, but they believe it will benefit their child in the long run. The parents who do that have been quite pleased so far,” said Wolpe.
Elizabeth Law — a self-described “tattooed mom with purple hair” — came to Framingham 6 months pregnant by way of Utah. When it was time to investigate schools for her twin daughters, Potter Road’s dual-language program was immediately a contender.
She liked the idea of them facing a challenge head-on early in life, and wanted them introduced to diversity early.
Ada has a proclivity for rules and order. She can sit quietly for hours without a problem. She’ll tell anyone who asks — and even those who don’t — that she’s older by about 3 minutes, said father Craig Wilkey.
“I was like, she’s going to nail school,” said Law.
Evey, on the other hand, is in constant motion — bouncing and giggling and racing. Wilkey said she was worried about making sure Evey behaved in school while not “squish(ing) her little spirit that has her so bouncy and joyful all the time.”
But when kindergarten started, Evey’s energy benefited her. She dove into the program, said Wilkey, soaking up the language and “becoming the social butterfly of the class.”
Meanwhile, Ada grew silent, shaken by not understanding what was being said in class. She would not speak in Portuguese and, if she did, she whispered it. When the teacher called on her, she’d cry, said Law.
“She’s a perfectionist, she doesn’t want to do something until she knows she’s doing it right. She doesn’t want to give an answer, unless she knows it’s the right answer,” said Law. “And Evey will just plow ahead.”
Law said she was reluctant to pull Ada from the program, saying it could ruin her confidence. Plus, she “firmly believed she could do it.”
Going into first grade, the parents asked the school to put them in the same class. It helped that Wolpe is a father of twins himself, said Wilkey.
They were assigned to Lapa Silva’s class, where Ada still spoke mostly English. Ahead of parent-teacher conferences, the teacher gave Ada a goal: She wanted her to repeat a sentence recited by Lapa Silva in Portuguese.
Just a week before the meeting, Lapa Silva reported that Ada asked her a question in Portuguese, unprompted.
Today, the twins slide from English to Portuguese and back, hoping the language can double as their special “twin code.” The pair sometimes act as translators for their mother when they wait for the bus stop with Brazilian families.
Law said Lapa Silva made a comment that helped her better understand her daughters’ differing experiences.
“She said, ‘Some kids learn languages by hearing it. So they start speaking immediately. They’ll make up words and sounds and they have to hear the pronunciation to know when they got it right,’” Law recalled. “But other kids have to absorb it, absorb it, and then they don’t speak until they know they got it right.”
Before and after COVID-19
The virus reached Framingham on March 11, when a parent of a Potter Road student tested presumptive positive.
The child, who had attended school that day, also showed mild symptoms. School officials swiftly shut Potter Road down, sending students home for the day. All schools were closed the next day and remained closed for the rest of the school year.
“It was eight weeks ago, but it feels like eight years ago,” said Wolpe. “At that time, no one knew anything besides, ‘Oh my goodness, this is a big deal.’”
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By necessity, all learning happens at a distance now. Not all children have the tools needed to access the internet — especially those with limited English skills, according to a 2019 study by the U.S. Department of Education.
To that end, in a massive, hands-on push, the district got thousands of Chromebooks to students, handing them out at drive-through distribution events. They later shipped more devices as well as WiFi hot spots to families who continued to have a need.
Even with that effort, some students and families did not know how to get online or lacked a quiet place to work.
“Teachers honestly became additional tech support,” said Christine Mulroney, president of the Framingham Teachers Association.
Meanwhile, finding outside, quality materials in some languages can be challenging. The district built a library of digital resources, such as videos of teachers reading and YouTube links to Portuguese television shows.
But small, rich moments that pop up in the course of a day in a dual-language classroom are gone.
On a typical school day, Lapa Silva’s students were busy writing about how they typically celebrate their birthdays. For Lais De Oliveira, the answer was a visit to a Chinese restaurant.
A Portuguese speaker, she hesitated on the English spelling.
Kayo Perpetuo, who was born in the U.S. and speaks both English and Portuguese, stepped in.
“Rest-au-rant,” said Kayo, slowly drawing it out.
Across the room, a girl who had suffered a traumatic experience worked on the same assignment. She’s excellent at spelling, said Lapa Silva, but usually stays quiet.
With one finger, she silently pointed to each letter to form a word. Her classmate was better with phonetics and able to sound out the words she spells.
This dynamic learning — where children who speak Portuguese help native English speakers sharpen their Portuguese and vice versa — will be hard to replicate in a remote setting. Without being able to learn from peers or see a teacher model the language face-to-face, language immersion won’t be at the same level.
No one knows what any learning will look like when we return in the fall.
Further, if school does return to an in-person model this fall, face masks, which will likely be required in some way, could be an obstacle. Many students rely on facial expressions to learn languages and cues.
Most administrators plan to assess all children when they return to school to understand how the closure impacted them and to strategize on how to help them build their skills back up.
“No one knows what any learning will look like when we return in the fall,” said Wolpe. “But we need to realize there’s going to be some regression.”
For months, Potter Road sat empty.
During late spring, cars rolled into the parking lot, with passengers holding up pieces of paper scrawled with the names of their children. Kids sat in the backseat, masked, with their own signs thanking their teachers pasted to car windows.
The operation reunited students with the belongings they had left in cubbies and classrooms, expecting to return to school in a few short weeks.
Before the closure, Lapa Silva could be found in her classroom, singing with her students and walking them through math problems. Everything was labeled in Portuguese — staplers, globes, soap — so children could see them and make connections.
This fall, the program at Potter Road will grow to third grade.
“What I’ve seen so far is teachers working hard to meet the needs of our kids and engaged students paying close attention,” said Wolpe.
When students do return to the building through wide electric blue doors, it will be under a banner that reads Atraves dessas portas caminham as melhores criancas do mundo — “Through these doors walk the world’s greatest kids.”