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Breaking Language Barriers: Meriden’s Principal of the Year | Sabrina Cofer

President Abraham Lincoln’s graffiti-painted likeness lies under a dark blue staircase in the spacious entryway of Lincoln Middle School. Spray painted on canvas by the local graffiti artist, ARCY, the giant painting now sits waiting to be encased and hung for all students, teachers, and parents who enter the school. “It took him all day to make. It came out so spectacular and he did it freeform with spray paint. Freeform! I got the chills just thinking about it,” Principal Dianne Vumback says, gazing at the painting with delight.

While the former president temporarily gazes at the underside of a stairwell, student paintings of Anne Frank and the Vans logo are encased in glass displays just a couple yards over in the bright and airy hallway. Vumback, the 2018 Connecticut Principal of the Year, points to those too, equally impressed by her students’ work. Dressed in a black and white houndstooth dress, she walks quickly in her short heels, her hair bouncing on her shoulders in soft curls, and her fingernails painted a dark pink. “We’re set up like Times Square, very open,” she explains, her voice just loud enough over the thunderous noise of hundreds of eighth graders eating lunch.

Lincoln’s a big school. Knocked down and rebuilt almost fifteen years ago, it still feels modern with multiple stories and wings for the grades. Even so, there are plenty of students to fill the school. “We’re huge this year. I’m pushing eight hundred kids. I barely have enough lockers,” Vumback confesses. Many of the skinny blue lockers are home to the increasing population of bilingual students. “Last week I got eight new students who qualified for bilingual education. Eight in one week. And what was special about last week, we don’t know.”

What she does know is Meriden—a city nestled in the Northeast corner of New Haven County, and her home for most of her life. Meriden’s Hispanic population has grown to nearly a quarter of the almost sixty thousand residents, the percentage higher than both Connecticut and the United States’ average, 15 percent and 17 percent, respectively. One in five Meriden residents speak Spanish, well over the U.S.’s average of 13 percent. These numbers represent the need for bilingual education in Meriden, a challenge Vumback has been facing for several years.

Artwork by ARCY. (Photo Credit by Sabrina Cofer for Blue Muse Magazine)

Unfortunately, the laws regarding bilingual education are extremely broad, leaving school administrations to improvise, and money tight. Here’s the breakdown: If a school has twenty or more students that speak the same language, the school must offer a bilingual education. Bilingual education means that the student can use their native language more freely in order to learn the curriculum. A student can have up to three years of bilingual education before transitioning to ESOL support, English for Speakers of Other Languages. ESOL curtails the student’s native language, relying more heavily on English during instruction.

By the end of a student’s first year, instruction must be given in English for at least 50 percent of the time, and a student does not qualify for bilingual education if he or she has less than thirty months until graduating high school. Besides this English objective, there are no regulations in what a bilingual student should be taught or what type of curriculum they should receive. The teachers don’t even have to speak the native language, which can make learning much more difficult for students.

Vumback recognizes this. “When you have the language it’s so much easier, especially at a middle school level, to help students resolve conflict, to overcome obstacles, to learn how to advocate for themselves.” At Lincoln, two out of her three bilingual teachers speak Spanish, in addition to some grade-level teachers being fluent or proficient. “Students know there’s somebody here that understands me because they understand my language.”

When Vumback started in 2010, she knew there needed to be a better support system for the many bilingual students—currently sixty-one in the bilingual program and 152 EL students, English Learners. Vumback wanted a shift in what her bilingual students were taught and how they were treated in the school.

“Last week I got eight new students who qualified for bilingual education. Eight in one week.”

Nine years ago, the bilingual students, no matter what grade level, were taught in the same classroom. This was a problem. “The bilingual teacher was teaching them math, science, English, and social studies,” Vumback says. “But that teacher wasn’t a certified science teacher or a certified math teacher so they weren’t necessarily getting grade level opportunity. They weren’t learning about modeling and the planets or bridges, they were learning what that teacher knew.”

Not only was this system unfair to the bilingual students who deserved an equal education, but it could be detrimental to their future. A study done by Connecticut Voices for Children on immigration found that Connecticut “middle and high school age students with limited English proficiency, and students who arrive in the United States with significant gaps in their previous schooling, fare substantially worse than their peers.” Without the proper grade-level support, bilingual students can face daunting post-school challenges.

Also worrisome were the social implications of separating the bilingual students from their peers. The lax laws allow for linguistic segregation. “We noticed socially, they didn’t have friends, they didn’t communicate and learn and challenge one another which is what middle school is all about.”

To combat this, Vumback overhauled the system. “I put together a committee of those that were passionate about it, those that I knew were going to move it forward, those that felt that sense of urgency because our students needed to catch up to everybody else.”

After a year of research, the committee decided to take their three bilingual teachers and assign them to each grade level. Now “the bilingual seventh grade students are in the seventh grade hallway in the seventh grade classroom with all seventh grade.” The students are integrated with their English-speaking classmates. The bilingual students have their English class, then go to the mainstream math, science, and social studies classes with the bilingual teacher traveling with them.

On a recent Thursday in a sixth grade English classroom the air is tense. Students hunch over laptops playing Kahoot, an online trivia game. Clusters of students groan when they miss an answer or high-five when correct, while down the hall, in a bilingual classroom, the sixth grade students are in the second hour of their double-block English class, the extra time used to better learn the regular English curriculum through sheltered language acquisition support. After English, the bilingual teachers support their bilingual students in other classes, moving with them to translate and offer adaptations. Bilingual teachers learn this language acquisition support through extensive workshops and training.

But it wasn’t just the bilingual teachers receiving the training, it was everyone. Vumback had consultants from the Sheltered Instructional Observation Protocol, or SIOP, provide training to the entire staff to help language acquisition students. SIOP advisers provided helpful strategies and procedures for how to teach English Learners successfully through workshops and site visits. “We did that for all my staff here. In other schools they may, but it’s really all ESOL teachers who take it. I was like, no, we’re all ESOL teachers.”

In addition to hours of training, she focused on improving communication and collaboration between the bilingual and grade-level teachers. She built in prep time for teachers to discuss and plan future lessons. “They sit down and create things for our bilingual students and that support’s needed. It’s been a lot of effort to beef up that mainstream classroom so that they could support all students, including our bilingual students.”

The walls of the bilingual classrooms display colorful flashcards in English and Spanish. On the whiteboard, there’s both a content objective and a language objective written in black and red marker. The content objective is overall for the class, while the language objective focuses on using English in their other subjects. In a sixth grade ESOL classroom, the language objective reads: “I will use English to research the organs of the body and explain their functions. I will then draft and write a five-paragraph essay on one organ.”

Student Artwork and Flashcards in the Bilingual Classroom. (Photo by Sabrina Cofer for Blue Muse Magazine)

Vumback explains that these prompts are a huge leap in student expectations. “These kids are writing a five paragraph essay. In the old days it would be a sentence, and of course the kids are happy with the sentence, but no, they could do more.”

She’s right. Each year the bilingual students must take state tests to show their growth and proficiency. The English Learner Students at Lincoln had a 1 percent to 4.3 percent increase in their reading scores, as well as a jump from 0.8 percent to 1.8 percent in Math. Because of results like these, Lincoln moved out of the Focus School category, meaning they are no longer in the classification of schools at risk. Lincoln is improving.

Though the progress has been rewarding, Vumback admits that it wasn’t a painless transition. “The biggest challenge was fear.” She explains how the bilingual students were nervous to be in the mainstream classes and have to speak in English in front of other kids. “They’re very self-conscious and middle school kids are goofy; they may make fun of them. Our culture has changed because that doesn’t happen like it used to, but when they were segregated, it did.”

Then there was the fear of mainstream teachers suddenly teaching students who knew little to no English. They needed to adjust and learn how to not only communicate with these students, but connect with them. “I have teachers right now who have students who cannot speak any English. That’s scary, right? Because you’re responsible for their growth and you want to be able to help them.”

Vumback understands that she asks a lot of her staff. Her short black heels clack on the tile as she passes through the eighth grade entryway. A “Class of 2023” banner hangs above in blue lettering. “It is so much work, it’s overwhelming. My teachers are so positive and supportive, but I know they’re going home stressed out because these students still have to take the state test, and they’re still accountable. Think about it, how are you going to teach them how to model wind forces? Like what’s the first step? Very, very difficult.”

But through all the training, meetings, and preparation, the teachers have been getting it done. “I have teachers going in where many of the students don’t speak English, and they’re still making it happen. They’re finding a way for them to learn and every single teacher here is committed to that.”

The growth in her bilingual students is most rewarding for Vumback. When asked what she is most proud of in the program, she pauses, peering out the large windows, watching the yellow school buses slowly pull into the parking lot, one after the other. “I’m so moved by the fact that students that are in our bilingual program have high expectations for themselves. They want to learn. They want the same middle school experience as everybody else and that’s so important.”

The high achieving students at Lincoln are not the norm. Bilingual programs at other Connecticut schools struggle due to a lack of resources or proper guidelines. Researchers from the Connecticut Voices for Children study found that students with lower levels of English proficiency populate the same areas, so they are constantly surrounded by other LEP (Limited English Proficiency) students. This is called linguistic segregation. This culminates in a snowball effect as these groups keep expanding instead of spreading out evenly throughout different school districts. The problem is nationwide. These pockets of the country “have greater difficulties hiring teachers and are more likely to rely on unqualified and substitute teachers than schools with few or no LEP students.” These students often end up at high-poverty schools which can lead to “a high risk of poor educational outcomes,” lower paying jobs, and higher levels of poverty later in life.

Principal Vumback knows that the laws in place have let down bilingual students. In her near decade as a school administrator she hasn’t seen much of a shift in Connecticut’s approach. But for now she’s focusing on what her school can do to make students’ lives better. “Were there challenges, some resistance? Absolutely. Was it worth it? Yeah, the kids are thriving, they’re connected. We have more students in our bilingual program that are participating in afterschool activities, sports, drama, than ever before.”

As the bell rings, the students head outside, a half-an-hour earlier on Wednesdays—another initiative to allow prep time for all teachers. The sunlight dances and flashes as the students throw the doors open to greet the buses, their sneakers squeaking on the blue and white tile as they pass by Lincoln’s watchful eyes.

As the kids file out, tables are being set up and model rockets moved to the gym as teachers, custodians, and students prepare for a family science night. Fold-up tables pop into place while students hustle by with poster board and colored markers. There’s music playing in the auditorium, something brassy and light-hearted, though not quite distinguishable over the noise. “Not only is it the law,” Principal Vumback says, as a teacher rushes by with a star rocket launcher for tonight. “It’s our moral obligation to be educating all students that come through my front doors.”


Headline photo courtesy of Sabrina Cofer for Blue Muse Magazine. 

Sabrina Cofer is a staff writer for the Blue Muse Magazine.

Blue Muse Magazine is a general interest literary magazine published by the students of the English Department at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Connecticut. We publish poetry, fiction, and a gamut of creative nonfiction on anything and everything the blue muse inspires us to write.

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