‘Compassion and hope’ guide multilingual initiatives at School of Education

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Professor Katherine Barko-Alva, pictured in her office with a souvenir from her years as a high school teacher. LEONOR GRAVE / THE FLAT HAT

According to School of Education professor Katherine Barko-Alva, the future of education in Virginia is multilingual.

Barko-Alva joined the College of William and Mary two years ago, and her research focuses on the construct of academic language, especially on English as a second language and dual-language enrollment programs.

She is also a member of the Virginia Dual Language Educators Network (VADLEN), where she serves on the executive board as the higher education representative.

This semester, her passion for dual-language education is largely reflected in legislative advocacy work. The priorities VADLEN identified for this legislative session in the Virginia General Assembly include five specific ESL and dual-language-focused bills. Four originated in the House of Delegates: HB13, HB442, HB507 and HB1156. One, SB 238, originated in the Virginia Senate.

HB507’s chief patron is Delegate Mike Mullin. When VADLEN reached out to him about dual-language programs, he took on the initiative, inspired in part by the dual-language enrollment program already in place at Saunders Elementary School in the Newport News City public school system.

“I thought that this was something we could encourage statewide,” Mullin said.

The bill would allow school divisions to use money from the Standards of Quality budget to hire dual-language teachers to provide instruction for English language learners. Legislation currently in place requires schools with dual-language programs to fund them out of pocket.

“My bill adds a discretionary aspect to the Standards of Quality, allowing school districts, if they want to, to spend some of the money they would usually spend on ESL on dual language for ESL students,” Mullin said.

The bill passed in the House vote Feb. 2 (91 Y – 7 N) and has been assigned to the public education subcommittee in the senate. If it passes, beginning this fall, students in Virginia will be able to make use of this program if their school districts decide to adopt dual-language enrollment programs.

“We need to recognize that the future of Virginia is becoming only more diverse and that we want to be able to embrace that and be able to help our students achieve the best they can in the 21st-century Virginia economy,” Mullin said.

Mullin stressed that he does not believe this to be a particularly partisan issue.

“The more that people are exposed to dual-language requirements and dual-language education, the more they see what a successful program it is,” Mullin said.

HB13 purports to increase the ratio of full-time instructional positions for English language learning students. HB442 proposes that the Virginia Department of Education create and distribute accommodations for ELLs for every Career and Technical Education assessment that counts toward CTE graduation credentials. HB 1156 would add a pre-k and k-6 dual-language endorsement option for licensure for teachers who meet a designated set of criteria. SB 238 would prevent schools from collecting demographic data on students in excess of what is required by current state and federal law.

Barko-Alva stressed that dual-language enrollment programs are immensely valuable to both English language learners and native English-speaking students.

“You put these two groups of kids together from the moment they reach pre-k all the way to fifth grade, going all the way until middle school and high school, and they become bilingual,” Barko-Alva said.

“You put these two groups of kids together from the moment they reach pre-k all the way to fifth grade, going all the way until middle school and high school, and they become bilingual,” Barko-Alva said. “And there is that cross-cultural communication piece where they understand each other, because they’re growing as a family.”

Dual-language programs ideally include a 50-50 split both in the proportion of English language learners to native English speakers and in the amount of time each day taught in each language. Multilingual education is also close to Barko-Alva’s heart due to her own educational background. Her parents fled political instability in Peru and moved to the United States when Barko-Alva was a senior in high school.

“I came to this country and didn’t speak English and it was a very traumatic transition,” Barko-Alva said. “I was 15 years old, I was placed in a classroom and everyone was talking to me and I had no idea what they were saying.”

Her guidance counselor told her to not even bother applying to college because she’d never get in, but Barko-Alva wasn’t about to give up. She worked diligently in school and ended up at the University of Florida. She completed her undergraduate degree there, as well as her Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction in the area of ESL/bilingual education.

Instead of going to law school, a path she considered, she decided to focus on education.

“Policy could take time, but the change happens when we teach,” Barko-Alva said. “The change happens when we have what I call the ‘subversive pedagogical practices of hope.’”

Hope and compassion, Barko-Alva said, are the guiding principles of her approach to education.

Barko-Alva was the recipient of a McKnight Doctoral Fellowship, which allowed her to pursue a fully funded Ph.D. and to work with Ester de Jong, one of the field’s foremost bilingual education scholars. Once it came time to apply to university jobs, Barko-Alva saw a unique opportunity in Virginia, where nine different school districts already had dual-language programs in place.

“I wanted to be at the beginning stages of something so wonderful,” Barko-Alva said.

VADLEN President and Director of Testing, CTE and world languages at Harrisonburg City Public Schools Jeremy Aldrich said the network’s long-term goal is that every public school student in Virginia has the opportunity be educated in English and another language.

Aldrich said that while institutions of higher education like the College are often home to many philosophical allies, it is necessary that they too do the work of revising their teacher education policies to support multilingual options. Luckily, this is exactly the kind of work Barko-Alva is invested in.

“When she came to William and Mary it was a godsend to us in Virginia,” Aldrich said. “And she just hit the ground running, immediately starting making an impact.”

At the School of Education, Barko-Alva has worked as part of a team to implement a stand-alone ESL bilingual education program which will begin next fall. It transforms the elective ESL classes already available into a more institutionalized track.

Though Barko-Alva believes strongly in the power of an individual classroom, she does not lose sight of her broader vision for a more multilingual approach to education. Through legislative advocacy work, she hopes that Virginia at least will see dual-language programs as viable, equitable education policies for ESL students. And she believes that those in her field have similar visions for the future of education.

“The people that I’ve encountered, are truly, truly committed to this notion of social justice and equity for our students,” Barko-Alva said.

Students who have been involved in ESL programs at the School of Ed echo these notions.

In his first year out of school, Thomas Northrup ’16, M.A.Ed. ’17, is teaching 2nd grade students at Bruce Monroe Bilingual Elementary School in Washington, D.C. He completed his dual certification in elementary education and ESL. For Northrup, teaching has been both a difficult endeavor and a rewarding one.

“The students are able to make connections across language,” Northrup said. “They are beginning to think meta-cognitively about language long before school tends to teach those skills.”

Hannah Basl ’17, M.A.Ed. ’18, completed the dual-endorsement program in ESL and secondary science education with a focus on biology and hopes to be able to teach classes that include ESL students.

“Science is already confusing enough as it is — I wanted to learn different techniques that would allow me to teach science to those who don’t speak the language,” Basl said.

“Science is already confusing enough as it is — I wanted to learn different techniques that would allow me to teach science to those who don’t speak the language,” Basl said. “The techniques we learn in the ESL program make any classroom stronger.”

Though she will graduate this May, Basl is thrilled that the ESL endorsement is expanding into a stand-alone master’s program.

“It’s a whole other window of opportunity for teachers interested in education equity,” she said.