The Heights

The state’s only dual-language program grows with Memphis’ Latino population

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It’s lunchtime at Treadwell Elementary, and the school’s new optional program coordinator, Darlene May, is heading to the cafeteria. Along the way, she’s met by a dozen students shouting, “Hola!,” through beaming smiles.

“Those aren’t dual language kids,” notes May.

It’s just cool to speak Spanish here.

May’s job is to help Treadwell’s dual-language immersion (DLI) program — the only optional program of its kind in the state — grow in terms of size and success.

“It’s not just a Spanish immersion program; it’s a dual immersion program. So all of the kids in the program should be bilingual and biliterate in English and Spanish, regardless of their home language,” May said of the program, which serves grades K to 5.

It’s an especially important program for a diverse neighborhood like The Heights and an increasingly diverse city like Memphis.

Optional school coordinator Darlene May talks in Spanish with some of Treadwell Elementary School's dual language students as the line up for lunch on September 21, 2018. Treadwell's dual language program immerses kids in both Spanish and English for or full fluency by fifth grade. It's the only program of its kind in Tennessee (Jim Weber/Daily Memphian)

According to May’s data, 36 percent of Treadwell’s 702 students speak primarily Spanish in the home. Fifty-four percent of the native English-speakers are Black or African American, five percent are white, and the remaining five percent are of Asian or multiracial descent.

The DLI program has 202 students, and 56 percent are native Spanish-speakers.

“The dual language program is a microcosm of the school which is a microcosm of the neighborhood, and more and more our city,” said May.

Principal Jason Carr said the program is a long-term investment in The Heights’ future success. DLI programs are proven to enhance learning ability and being bilingual is a marketable skill for any future career.

Since the program was introduced in 2009, it’s focused on improving educational outcomes and language proficiency alongside harder to measure gains like preservation of Latino heritage in an area with a growing Latino population (whose numbers are also difficult to quantify because immigrants are often fearful of surveying).

The program is tight-knit. All grades eat lunch together and most students will keep the same classmates all five years. The hope is close connections across student groups make them more empathetic and willing to work together to reinvest in the community that invested in them.

“When you see kids that are from different cultures and backgrounds come together in this way, it really lights you up to believe that adults can do the same,” said Carr.

Why Here?

Treadwell is a Title I school, its students face barriers as racial and ethnic minorities, and The Heights’ poverty rate is above 30 percent. Students may face adverse childhood experiences, and first-language literacy can be challenging for both English and Spanish-speakers.

While the DLI program is an optional program, students don’t need high test scores or stellar records to get in. There are standards once accepted, but to get started, parents simply opt in when enrolling their child for kindergarten. It’s open to any kindergartner in the area, but the majority come from Treadwell’s district.

Hugo Bahamon helps fourth graders read a map in one of Treadwell Elementary School's dual language classes on September 21, 2018. Treadwell's dual language program immerses kids in both Spanish and English for full fluency by fifth grade. It's the only program of its kind in Tennessee (Jim Weber/Daily Memphian)

May said that because the program lacks academic entry requirements, many students face the same learning gaps as non-optional peers, like low literacy. Compounding the issue, 90 percent of kindergarten lessons and 80 percent of first grade lessons are taught in Spanish — including math, science, etc. — but testing is in English and doesn’t measure Spanish language progress.

“Our kindergarteners learn literacy in Spanish first but are still, by the end of the year, held to the same standards [as] every other kindergartener in the district,” she said.

Treadwell hired May in August to support at-risk students and identify opportunities for program growth. The hope is that achievement will climb as more resources are invested.

Studies show that DLI programs improve not just literacy but overall educational attainment.

“Building in this ability with kids at such an early age gives them a life-long gift that no matter what they become, they’re going to be head and shoulders above the competition,” said Carr.

Because the curriculum is mostly taught in Spanish, some students may be slower to meet state proficiencies, but by the fourth and fifth grades, they’re outpacing the school’s non-optional students.

“Their reading ability is better. Their speaking ability certainly is better,” Carr noted.

Parent Nikki Waldon said a program with 90 percent Spanish immersion is important for fluency and a real asset to Memphis. Her daughter, Nola, attended the Foreign Language Immersion Childcare Center Downtown and is now in kindergarten at Treadwell. A native of Los Angeles, Waldon investigated DLI programs in L.A. and Texas and found those with an immersion ratio better than half Spanish-half English to be extremely costly.

“I think it’s one of the best things offered in the city...[and] free? Where you going to get that?,” said Waldon. “And to start off in a 90-10 program, it’s pretty remarkable.”

Flags from Spanish speaking countries hang in Yvonne Thomas' dual language kindergarten class on September 21, 2018. Treadwell's dual language program immerses kids in both Spanish and English for full fluency by fifth grade. It's the only program of its kind in Tennessee (Jim Weber/Daily Memphian)

The program’s high rate of Spanish language immersion is important even for native Spanish-speakers.

“Research has proven that literacy in your first language is going to be a projection of the literacy in your second,” said May.

Most Spanish-speaking kids who grow up in the U.S. are bilingual not biliterate, able to read and write the language. This hinders English literacy and leaves them with less marketable Spanish language skills. Native Spanish-speaking students are shown to have lower educational attainment and higher dropout rates, in part due to poor literacy.

Literacy also preserves heritage and allows youth to help family members who may face low literacy.

“[Spanish-speaking parents] want their kids in it because they realize that they’re going to maintain their home language — be biliterate, not just bilingual,” said May.

Hugo Bahamon teaches second and third grade social studies and third grade science at Treadwell. A native of Colombia, he worked previously for the United Nations. He said the U.N. has a big need for Spanish speakers of African ancestry, as many Afro-Latino and Afro-Caribbean people are leery of officials of non-African descent. Bahamon makes it a point to tell his African American students about opportunities unique to them and encourages them to use their language skills to see the world.

“Imagine having the ability to be absolutely fluent in two languages to where it becomes natural for you …. you are so much more marketable,” said Carr.

Treadwell staff found that for kids from outside the neighborhood, many of them white and more affluent, it’s an opportunity to gain exposure. They, in turn, invite their Heights friends to activities in their neighborhoods, offering them exposure to new networks and experiences.

“Those students are being given the chance to grow and learn who they are and another language all in a multi-ethnic community and a multi-ethnic classroom,” said Gretchen Biere, a second grade teacher who was herself a student in an elementary DLI program.

On her personal experience, Biere said she is who she is today because she attended a DLI program. It’s why she loves language and why she wanted to become a teacher.

“It has completely directed the course of my life,” she said.

Why Now?

Demand for Treadwell’s DLI program is increasing. In four years, they’ve added 45 students. May said the current three kindergarten classes and third grade class are at capacity, and the two first and two second grade classes are approaching full. Next year, they’ll need to add a second third grade class.

Carr said there are new families moving into The Heights and new investment.

“I don’t think you could be in a better place in the city of Memphis in terms of a community that’s kind of rebuilding itself and coming together in a really unique way,” he said.

In the last few years, Treadwell has partnered with Heights CDC and others on initiatives including a walking track and basketball court on the adjacent Treadwell Middle School campus. Carr cites plans for a greenway down National Street and new development on Summer Avenue as further signs of positive momentum.

Related: “Video: The Heights rides to improve public space

At the same time, the school has shown overall improvements connected to factors like the dual language program and heavy, school-wide investment after its designation as a Shelby County iZone improvement school four years ago.

Dasha Palacios (left) helps Bryan Cruz with his math in one of Treadwell Elementary School's dual language classes on September 21, 2018. Treadwell's dual language program immerses kids in both Spanish and English for full fluency by fifth grade. It's the only program of its kind in Tennessee (Jim Weber/Daily Memphian)

In the 2013-14 school year, only 18 percent of students met literacy proficiencies but just two years later than number had jumped to almost 34 percent.

An Instructional Culture Survey administered to staff in 2014-15 showed 55 percent of employees felt Treadwell was a good place to learn and work, a fifteen percent jump from 2013-14. That same year the school showed progress in language arts and mathematics, and in 2017, it was removed from the state’s priority watch list, where it had been since 2012.

With students gaining academically, Treadwell is stretching its commitment to families and the greater community. According to Carr, the future of the resurgence in The Heights depends on the economic success of today’s youth and how deeply they’re bonded to the neighborhood.

The school’s Conectando Familias, or Families Connecting, meets regularly to provide kids and parents reading resources like tutorial services and books in Spanish and English so literacy and cross-cultural understanding can expand from the classroom to the living room.

The 11 DLI teachers — who represent a diversity of cultures from roughly half a dozen countries — are increasingly embedded in the neighborhood. May lives in nearby Grahamwood Elementary district and one of the DLI teachers is a graduate of Kingsbury, the only public high school in The Heights.

Biere is in her third of a four-year commitment to teach in The Heights as part of Memphis Teaching Residency, but before she started she was encouraged to get to know the neighborhood. She fell in love and even joined a new Spanish-speaking church.

“At the same time that I was going to be serving in this predominantly Hispanic and Black school, I also joined a Spanish-speaking house church. [The neighborhood] felt like all of my world, five days a week plus Sundays,” said Biere.

Last year she and her husband bought a house in The Heights.

“My students know that I live in the neighborhood and their parents know that I live in the neighborhood, and there’s something less fleeting about me as a teacher,” she said. “Like I am someone who can be trusted because I’m planted where they’re planted.”

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Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017.