Ayanna Cooper: Tell me about yourself and your work with multilingual educators and students.
Keena Flournoy White: I am a devoted educator/advocate with three decades of experience serving in various capacities, with a passion for teaching reading. Some of the positions I held before becoming a principal include elementary classroom teacher, K–3 literacy coach, and Reading First coordinator with the responsibility of supporting administrators, instructional coaches, and teams of teachers. I really enjoyed helping educators understand the systems, structures, and strategies needed to develop early readers. Eventually, I secured a similar role supporting middle school students in need of foundational literacy skills.
AC: As an educator/advocate, how did you expand your foundational literacy efforts to include and bring more attention to bilingualism and biliteracy?
KFW: My interest in bilingualism and biliteracy primarily began when I accepted a role as assistant principal. For seven years, I worked at a school that served over 600 students with 32 different languages. It was a very linguistically diverse learning community, which helped me to expand my vision and desire to support more Black and Brown students. In February 2020, I became the proud principal of the Sojourner Truth School in Harlem, New York.
AC: Describe the Sojourner Truth learning community.
KFW: We have approximately 290 students in pre-K–8 and are a designated Title I school.
The majority (90%) of the teaching staff has five years of experience or less. The student demographics are 71% Black/African American or of African descent, 27% Hispanic, and 2% American Indian or Alaska Native. About 20% of the students are identified as English learners/English as a new language (ENL). In addition to English, the primary home languages served within our school community include Spanish, French, Arabic, Wolof, and Bangladeshi. Students have a range of proficiency levels in English, from entering through commanding. We currently have one full-time ENL teacher on staff. Approximately 37% of students are classified as having special needs and are served through IEPs.
AC: Tell us about the new dual language program you started and why you felt the program was needed.
KFW: Last year, 2022–23, I was able to implement a French/English dual language pre-k program. This program is unique in that it helps to support bilingualism and biliteracy for our African-Senegalese ENL students and native-English-speaking students. The plan is to expand the dual language program through eighth grade. This school year, 2023–24, we will service students in grades pre-k and kindergarten. The model we are implementing is 40% French and 60% English.
Harlem has been the home of African immigrants for decades. At one point in time, Black immigrants were thriving economically as entrepreneurs. It seems like just yesterday. More recently, due to a number of political and social issues, African vendors have been removed from the community. This has had a negative impact on their short- and long-term livelihoods. Becoming bilingual/biliterate can create more economic opportunities for students and their families. Students need to learn how to start, operate, and sustain their own businesses if they decide to. This is a necessary part of civic education and urban renewal efforts.
Currently we have about 30,000 African-Senegalese in New York City. There is one French/English dual language school that services all grades from K–6. They have a waiting list of 200 students, mostly African-Senegalese and those of Haitian descent. I wanted to service the educational needs of the community, one that affirms and celebrates the students’ cultural backgrounds, languages, belief systems, food, and customs, all of which have been added to Harlem’s diverse landscape by African immigrant populations. There are plenty of Spanish/English bilingual programs but not nearly as many French/English ones. Why is that? This is why I felt that an additional dual language program was needed.
AC: Agreed! Why are there so few? How did you address the need for certified teachers for the program?
KFW: I had to create a teacher certification track for all long-term substitute teachers. Most of them are African-Senegalese or Nigerian, and a few are Asian. New York City allows people who have bachelor degrees to become substitute teachers, but many substitute teachers get stuck in that position for years. Substitute teachers end up teaching without medical benefits, 401Ks, or sick/vacation days.
We first helped those substitutes to get their degrees transcribed in English. This was necessary for them to apply for initial licensure. This step allowed them to first see what additional requirements, if any, they needed to meet to become fully certified in New York. Many didn’t need to do much more because they had their bachelor’s and master’s degrees already.
AC: Yes, foreign transcript evaluation is an equity issue! See Language Magazine’s June 2016 article “Sticking to the Script” (Grant and Newby, 2016).
KFW: We have another set of teachers who don’t have professional backgrounds as educators but they fill a number of vacant positions across the school system. Some of these areas include bilingual education (all languages), special education, mathematics, and science. I currently have five teachers who fit this description. They work as substitute teachers and need to earn master’s degrees in education.
Thankfully I have a partnership with Touro College to help address this. Through this partnership, teachers enrolled in the master’s program can receive a provisional license, which affords them the opportunity to earn full benefits. Once they graduate they will receive a common branch license to teach grades 1–6 and a special education license for grades 1–6.
The college has also agreed to charge a reduced fee for the licenses and degree program. Our Councilman Jordan has agreed to sponsor all five teachers while they complete their degrees so that they will not have to take out student loans or pay out-of-pocket tuition. We are also working on helping those who are multilingual to earn bilingual educator licensure.
AC: What are some obstacles and/or barriers you’ve encountered while doing this work?
KFW: There have been so many, but just to summarize a few:
Lots of discussions about equity, but very few systemic and strong pipelines for Black immigrant student populations
Educators who are not committed to the communities they serve
Educators who do not understand the needs of the communities they serve
Underestimating the amount of work it takes to support the whole child, their families, and those entering the teaching profession in nontraditional ways
Finding highly qualified multilingual social workers and guidance counselors
Too much politics
Continually being underfunded and under-resourced
AC: Do you have a piece of advice to leave readers with?
KFW: We need to create and sustain multilingual learning environments that truly support the communities they serve. We can do this with wrap-around services, time, and dedicated practitioners. It takes an entire village to truly raise a generation that will break cycles of poverty. It takes intentional leaders on various levels, who work across contexts, e.g., educators, policymakers, health care professionals. Surface-level knowledge does not provide the help needed. Compassion, collaboration, and urgency are what move the needle for change.
Keena Flournoy White is currently the principal of the Sojourner Truth School in Harlem, New York. She has three decades of experience as an educator and a passion for creating bilingual/biliterate learning communities. Keena has served as mentor for building-level administrators, instructional coaches, and teachers with a focus on reading instruction for pre-k–8 students.