Dual-language program in Amherst schools loses state funding

Fort River School in Amherst, home of the Caminantes program.

Fort River School in Amherst, home of the Caminantes program. STAFF FILE PHOTO

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 01-25-2024 11:08 AM

AMHERST — The leader of a successful dual-language program at Fort River School is calling on the Amherst School Committee for a continued commitment to keep and expand the program now that the district has lost a state grant.

Katie Richardson, the district’s multilingual educator, told the committee last week that the Caminantes program continues to meet the needs of students enrolled in it, improving the language and literacy skills of both the Spanish and English speakers.

Since its launch in 2019, when Caminantes began for kindergartners, the program has been funded by grants from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. That money helped build the program’s foundation, and has covered curriculum materials, texts, supplies and subscriptions and the training of staff.

“But it’s not continuing, and this is the time where the district has to start looking at how to make it a sustainable commitment to make this program work,” Richardson told the committee last Thursday.

Funding is just one of the challenges coming for Caminantes, including how to bring the program to sixth grade and to the Amherst Regional Middle School, in the fall of 2025 and the fall of 2026, respectively.

Over five years, the grants, generally around $500,000 annually, have gone toward the program as well as the Western Massachusetts Bilingual Hub at the University of Massachusetts.

“They were really significant,” Richardson said of the competitive grants, which Amherst schools failed to secure this year.

The bilingual hub is a partnership with Amherst, Holyoke and Springfield public schools to support teacher training. So far, 15 educators have completed coursework through the bilingual hub, and three are currently enrolled.

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Currently, up to 40 students in each of the grades K-4 at Fort River School are in Caminantes, equally divided between those coming from Spanish-speaking families and those from English-speaking families. Half the day is spent with instruction in Spanish and half the day is spent with instruction in English.

For core subjects, mathematics is taught in Spanish in grades K-2 and in English in grades 3-5, while science and social studies units are taught equally in both languages.

“We made this commitment five years ago and we really need to continue it,” Richardson said, explaining that it began as the number of Hispanic students and Spanish-speaking students in Amherst schools was growing and English language learners were performing at lower levels on MCAS tests. “We see amazing outcomes with students, we see the connection with families.”

In addition to serving English language learners and multilingual students, the district saw bilingualism as an asset for all students and an opportunity that many families would be interested in.

“Research shows that English learners served in a dual-language program model have better educational outcomes than through any other program model available to us, including sheltered English immersion,” Richardson said.

Bilingualism, biliteracy

Caminantes has rested on the pillars of bilingualism and biliteracy, academic achievement and sociocultural competence, as well as aligning with district goals of hiring more diverse staff, closing the opportunity gap, and providing innovative and multicultural education, she said.

Both language and literacy development have shown improvement. On language, 59% of all Caminantes students are speaking at the intermediate level of Spanish by the end of third grade. On literacy, the measurements use the mClass and mClass Lectura assessments for both Spanish and English skills.

“We see that roughly 60% of our students in third and fourth grade are at or above grade level in both cases, so that’s exciting to see,” Richardson said.

On sociocultural competence, students are connecting across race, class and linguistic differences. “The status of the Spanish language is elevated,” Richardson said. “We hear more students speaking Spanish and feeling comfortable speaking Spanish, which is amazing. They recognize its value.”

Aside from funding and expanding the program in the coming years, another challenge is busing from the other elementary schools, which causes students to miss learning time. “That’s something we really need to look at going forward,” Richardson said.

Those who provided public comment to the School Committee said they worry about funding and the plans for when Caminantes moves beyond Fort River.

As a teacher, Lissa Pierce Bonifaz said she has noticed students becoming more proud of their family’s heritage, like some speaking about their customs in Puerto Rico or El Salvador.

“You don’t always get that in a regular ESL classroom, where most of the time children are trying to shy from anything different and want to be like their peers — that is what we’re bringing to fruition here in Amherst.”