In August 2013 Stephen Gruber-Miller, IowaWatch and West Liberty Index reporter, interviewed West Liberty schools Superintendent Steve Hanson about that district’s dual language program. District officials say the program has helped improve the educational experience and outcomes in their schools. More than one-half of West Liberty’s residents are Latino.
Below is an edited transcript of the portion of Gruber-Miller’s interview with Hanson that deals with education.
Stephen Gruber-Miller: I wanted to ask you about the dual language program that you have here in West Liberty. A couple people in town have told me good things about it, so can you explain how it works and what year you started it?
Steve Hanson: Sure. The dual language program in West Liberty started 15 years ago. The first graduating class that had gone all the way through from kindergarten through 12th grade was the class of 2011. So class of 2011, first class to go all the way through 13 years of dual language. Dual language, what does it look like? In our elementary grades, in kindergarten through fifth grade, K-5, it’s a 50-50 program which means in the academic subjects, math, science, English, social studies, half the time the students spend learning in Spanish and half the time in English.
So it’s a 50-50 program in the K-5 years. Then, when they get to middle school, grades 6, 7, 8 it goes down to about a 30 percent Spanish program because the students continue their study of Spanish and culture, geography and history instead of exploratory classes that some of the other middle school students would do. Then, in high school it’s just an advanced sequence of Spanish courses, of Spanish language. …
Gruber-Miller: Okay. That’s interesting. How do you think – I know the first class graduated in 2011 – but how do you think that they compare to most high school Spanish students who have taken four years or five years?
Hanson: … They’re much more at home with Spanish since they’ve spent so much time and so many years with it, than even a very studious student in high school because they’ve been listening to Spanish their whole life. So they’re very comfortable with hearing and understanding Spanish. They don’t have to put out as much conscious effort as your typical high school kid might. …
I recall the year before the last going to a middle school classroom, a sixth, seventh grade classroom, and the instructor, who’s from Spain, was talking with the class about what they were doing in his normal cadence as a native Spanish speaker from Spain. And they’re all, by the reactions on their faces and everything they did, obviously understanding absolutely every word he’s saying. I compare that to my experience in high school as a high school principal going into Spanish classrooms and maybe the Spanish 3 or the Spanish 4 teacher addressing the class all in Spanish, and you can see that some are struggling to catch many of the things the teacher is saying. Maybe they get the main point: “What did he say we’re supposed to do?” It’s not as natural or as fluent in listening with comprehension as it might be for our dual language students who have spent so much time in Spanish, just for one comparison.
Also, I notice the writing level of students in middle school and how easy they are able to compose in Spanish and write in Spanish compares very favorably to what Spanish 4 students might be able to do in high school, or actually maybe even easier for them because they’ve been writing in Spanish for eight years when you’re in the seventh grade, seventh, eighth grade. So it definitely is something that gives them an ability with the language that’s a lot more natural and fluid than high school students, even those that are very applied students. It’s more automatic and free or flowing for these dual language students. …
The goal of the dual language program is to make the participants biliterate and bicultural. Bilingual, biliterate and bicultural. The mix of the students in the classes, a goal is to have it be 50-50, half and half. Half of the class being native Spanish speakers, or home language Spanish, and half of the class being home language English. We stretch it to 60-40, but try not to get it beyond those bounds. We want a good balance of membership in the class of people from home language Spanish and home language English.
Gruber-Miller: Okay. So when you implemented it, when you first implemented it, that was 15 years ago you said? I know you have a large Spanish speaking population in town, but what really told you that you needed to start implementing this kind of program and how did the community feel about it?
Hanson: The leadership at the time chose dual language because they had been to a conference and had heard that this is something that is very effective for English language learners. That one of the best things you can do for your limited English proficient students, your ESL or ELL English Language Learners, one of the best things you can do for them is a dual language program. They heard that at a conference. They also picked up a source of funding, wrote a grant for some federal funds and got five years startup money. And so, armed with the data and the information that dual language is one of the best things you can do for your English language learners, and with the money to make it happen, voila, it happened. Now in the beginning then it was, “oh, then do we need to do that or not?” I wasn’t here so I can’t speak in first person about that. But they ended up then with two sections of kindergarten to start and then the second year added a first grade and the third year added a second grade so it just worked its way on up through the chain. And adding a year every year until 2011 when the first group graduated and there were all 13 years of school had dual language students.
It’s a program that really is a mark of this district that people are proud of … Fifty percent of our students in upper elementary and middle school are enrolled in the program, half of all the students in the district. Sixty percent of our students in the lower, in K1-2 are enrolled in dual language.
Gruber-Miller: So you can choose whether to be in dual language?
Hanson: It’s a choice program. People choose at the start of kindergarten, so in this district with our enrollment levels of about 90 or 100 students per grade level, 100 students per grade level, we have five sections. Three now are dual language sections and two now are non-dual.
When they began doing this program how did the students feel about it? Was there any resistance at first from students or parents at all?
Well, since it started with kindergarteners it’s hard to say: “How do kindergarteners feel about that?” I imagine that there would have been some home language English that wondered why their parents put them in this classroom where the teacher spoke another language, there was probably some confusion at first. But it was done in a way that the program got a very smooth start. I think that’s part of the reason for the success of the program: it was planned well and it got a good start.
You know, the challenge of a program like this is finding personnel who are bilingual, who are fluent in Spanish, to teach. Because in this district, which is a class 2A district, about 100 students per grade level, just about like Mount Vernon … we have 16 teachers who spend all or part of their day using Spanish as the language of instruction. Now think about Mount Vernon High School; how many Spanish teachers were there? Two? We’re the same size district as Mount Vernon, we have 16 teachers who use Spanish as the language of instruction …
Spanish teachers aren’t readily available and that’s why the state of Iowa together with the U.S. State Department joined the Teacher from Spain program, and why the state of Iowa will give teaching credentials for three years to a teacher from Spain to come and teach in Iowa, and the State Department will give a visa for three years, a work visa, a temporary work visa. …
So the project that I’m doing is about disparities between different races in things like graduation rates for instance, and lower rates among Latinos than whites in general. Has the implementation of the dual language program affected the dropout percentage?
Well, I’ll answer that question by saying I don’t know if it’s the dual language program that has done it, but this district does have a good graduation rate for our Latino population. In fact, the most recent graduation figures are for the class of 2012. For the class of 2011, our Latino graduation rate exceeded our white graduation rate. We were 86 percent graduation rate for Latinos and 85, something like that, for whites. When you sort out the data by subgroups: male, female, white, Latino, free/reduced lunch, non-free/reduced lunch, special ed., etcetera, when you split out the graduation data here you find every subgroup well represented in our graduation rate. Our graduation rate in West Liberty is state average: 89 point some percent. We are at state average and our Latinos and white graduation rates are basically the same.
Gruber-Miller: Okay. How would you say the program affects Latino students going forward? Because some of these other disparities that I’ve been examining are lower median income and lower homeownership and higher poverty. And so people that I’ve talked to have tied that to partly maybe the language barrier and how difficult it is for people to get jobs if they have trouble with English, or if they have an accent they’re discriminated against.
Hanson: Certainly the key to middle class life is getting a decent education beyond high school. And with the kind of education students in West Liberty receive, we are putting out our students. A good percentage of our students are going on to some kind of post-secondary preparation whether it’s a two-year certificate at a community college or four-year study. I know there’s a center for cultural diversity at the University of Iowa that’s very focused on helping students from West Liberty …
I know there were four guys — I don’t know how many students in the class — there were four guys who are Latinos who are in engineering at University of Iowa.
Gruber-Miller: From West Liberty?
Hanson: From West Liberty. So you’re looking at people who are well prepared. They have what they need to be successful at University of Iowa or at Kirkwood or Muscatine Community College or Iowa State, wherever they choose to go they’ve been prepared, everyone at the same level of preparation. And they’re encouraged to go on, and the counselors work to help them get the scholarships. And we’ve been fortunate to see Latinos entering the pipeline, the post-secondary college pipeline in numbers similar to whites. So we have hopes that we’ll be getting some of them back as teachers, as leaders, as people who will live in this community and work wherever but who can then, who can take roles of leadership in the community and come back as strong, bilingual, well educated people and help this place continue to grow.
Gruber-Miller: West Liberty seems very integrated then with Latinos and whites, but is there or was there any sort of maybe discrimination or disparities?
Hanson: … West Liberty has a longer history with Latino residents than many other communities in Iowa. More common, I think around Iowa, is for around the turn of the century, around 2000, late 1990s to 2000, for an influx of new Iowans, immigrants. Communities like Ottumwa, where I was before West Liberty, communities like Ottumwa, Dennison, Storm Lake, Perry, etcetera, that seemed to have more newcomers, whereas Muscatine County, West Liberty seem to be a little more established in terms of second, third, fourth generation. Although there are newcomers here I don’t think our percentages are the same as many other communities in Iowa. You would have to go back. …
I know Ottumwa, the late 1990s, 2000, 2001 we went from maybe fewer than 500 residents who were Latino to 3,000 in just a few years. So when it happens like that, where there are many in a short period of time, then there’s a little bit of shock value there for people. “Where are they coming from? What are they doing?” So I’m two years in West Liberty, so I can’t say how it might have been a generation ago or two, but it is true that this town seems to have adapted quite well to the heritage of half of its residents. …
The Latino population has adopted the culture of the district and of the city and the city has adopted the Latinos as part of the culture as well. I think we’re at a good position, people are just looking to, are holding out their hand inviting Latinos to step forward and take on increasingly leadership roles.