Sunday, November 22, 2009

Bilingual program avoids state takeover

By Jennifer Killin | Del Rio News-Herald
November 4, 2009

After two years, the public school system has pulled its bilingual education programs away from the brink of state takeover.

In 2007, the San Felipe Del Rio Consolidated Independent School District's bilingual program was cited for a number of violations following a weeklong investigation. During that time, representatives from the Texas Education Agency (TEA) pored over student records, test scores, and interviewed school staff, administrators and parents.

“We were cited for everything under the sun,” says Director of English Language Acquisition Dr. Sally Zuniga-Barrera “We were, literally, on the verge of being taken over by the state.”

Zuniga-Barrera, who at the time of the investigation was the principal of Ruben Chavira Elementary, was quickly named the director of bilingual programs, a position that had been vacant for several years.

What got the district into trouble?

Years of neglect, says Zuniga-Barrera.

Compounding the problem was that no one seemed aware of how much trouble the bilingual programs were in.

“No one knew how bad it was, it came as a shock to all of us,” said Zuniga-Barrera.

After the state's investigation, the district was cited for unsatisfactory documentation in student records, a curriculum that ran the gamut, failure to adequately track students, and minimal or non-existent staff development, among others.

With the district cited in Stage 3 and then Stage 4 by the state, just a mere year from potentially losing control of its program, school officials were spurred into action. Bilingual education became a focus.

Along with the hiring of Zuniga-Barrera, former district administration hired additional staff members, gave the department needed tools and provided much needed support and guidance.

Then, the work invested into the bilingual program paid off.

On Oct. 12, Zuniga-Barrera got the notice she'd been waiting months to hear, the state appointed agent watching the district since its woes began sent an email.

In it he says, “This is a short memo to let you know that (SFDRCISD) has done a great job in developing strategies to help the (bilingual\English as a Second Language programs)…Your current staging of N\A removes you from our watch list and we appreciate your hard work.”

No longer would Zuniga-Barrera have to document her every move, worry about surprise state inspections, or fret over the status of her program.

But, there is still work to be done, says Zuniga-Barrera.

Though students have made significant gains in recent years, and more students than ever are exiting the program, meaning they've learned enough skill and language to pass state exit requirements, she's not ready for a victory cry just yet.

“We're excited, but we're not backing down,” says Zuniga-Barrera. “We're not going to say, 'oh, we're out of stage' and stop making progress.”

First and foremost, Zuniga-Barrera says work needs to be done on instruction and English Language Development.

Year after year teachers in the district have been handed new models for teaching children English in conjunction with core area curriculum.

In the past, many teachers tossed those models, opting for their own method, which contributed to the problems that arose years ago.

With the help of new superintendent, Kelt L. Cooper, Zuniga-Barrera says the district has created a model that she hopes will prove effective for years to come.

The standard curriculum model in the district had been 90 percent teaching in the students' native language and 10 percent in English.

Two years ago, the district started increasing the amount of instruction in English.

Now, Zuniga-Barrera said the district would take a progressive approach starting with a child's pre-kindergarten year.

It's a specific plan, with specific components designed to streamline a child's learning year after year, with every teacher on the same page.

Zuniga-Barrera also vowed to not let bilingual education again take a back seat within the district.

“Not at all, we are going to make this a model program when we're done…other school districts will turn to us to see how to improve,” said Zuniga-Barrera.

Still, she and the district can breathe a collective sigh of relief that the ordeal is finally over.

“It would've been nice not to have been in this predicament, but we've come out of it,” said Zuniga-Barrera. “We are extremely proud of our campus administration, teachers, parents, but most importantly our students!”

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