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A Bilingual Path to Literacy Success

Celia Moses explains how a dual immersion Spanish-language magnet school has succeeded through frequent data dives and personalization with curriculum-aligned supports

I have been the principal at Georgia Brown Elementary School for five years, but my relationship with the school began many years ago when my own children were students there and I began substitute teaching. It’s been a real joy to see the school grow and change over those years and develop the amazing dual immersion program that it has today.

Dual immersion programs allow English language learners to continue their journey in their native language—Spanish, at our school. The more proficient students are in their primary language, the faster they are able to transfer those skills to a second language. Our English speakers have the opportunity to learn a new language.

In the 2022–2023 school year, 95% of kindergarten, 72% of first-grade, and 68% of second-grade students were reading at or above grade level. Here’s how we did it.

A Bilingual Vision
Biliteracy is essential to our vision at Georgia Brown. Our school’s mission statement reads, in part, “All students will achieve bilingualism, biliteracy, and sociocultural competency. Georgia Brown provides rigorous standard-based instruction in Spanish and English while engaging in positive cross-cultural experiences.” The statement goes on to declare that all “students will develop high biliteracy skills in Spanish and English by the end of fifth grade.”

We have more than 620 students, who work with 23 teachers and eight intervention teachers. We have a waiting list and use a lottery to determine who gets in. Approximately 80% of our staff are native Spanish speakers. They are from all over Latin America, which is great for helping us reach the sociocultural competency required by our mission.

Our Spanish list is rarely full, so we do conduct outreach to educate local parents about the benefits of a dual immersion program for their students. They believe that their children need English to be successful and tend to see less value in becoming proficient in Spanish. We never have too many open spots; however, because we are a magnet school, we pull students from across our district and even beyond.

Like other dual immersion schools, we are sometimes criticized because our students do not always score as high as students in English-only programs in early grades. We teach kindergarten in Spanish 90% of the day and introduce more English each year. Students transition to reading and writing in English in third grade. They are on a different track than students at English-only schools, and so we can’t really compare to other students in the first few years, though we tend to perform better later on.

Data-Driven Professional Growth Goals
Georgia Brown is a data-driven school, and that begins with our teachers’ professional growth goals. They look at their data and create SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound) goals based on it. Throughout the year, after each summative assessment, they dig into the data again to see what progress they’ve made toward their professional growth goals and to consider changes in their classrooms. I encourage them to see their list of goals as a living document and even to keep it on their wall so they keep their goals in mind and adjust them as necessary.

Our professional learning communities (PLCs) have been a game-changer for us. Ninety percent of our faculty is trained on effective PLCs and, during that training, we revisit our school vision. A couple of years ago, if I had asked my teachers about the school vision, they wouldn’t have been able to tell me much. Now they would tell me that all students will achieve bilingualism, biliteracy, and sociocultural competency. It’s posted in every classroom, and every lesson they teach is related to that vision.

Our PLCs have also helped to ensure that our teachers are working closely together yet still have personal freedom. They often plan lessons together in PLC meetings, and whether they are planning together or individually, they begin with the assessment and plan backwards from that. They always have four questions to answer:

• What are students going to learn?
• How will students learn it?
• Did they learn it?
• What will I do with the highest and lowest performers?

Teachers also participate in three data retreats each year. At the first one, they spend an entire day looking at the data and planning the first trimester. They break the trimester down by week so they have a map showing what standard will be addressed and when. They integrate different subject areas, such as social studies and science, and create a common assessment for the end of the first week so they have the full week to teach it.

During weekly PLCs after formative assessments have been completed, teachers come together to look at the data and see who was successful, who needs additional support, and who needs to be retaught by the teacher or an intervention specialist. Teachers get creative with their schedules to provide a ten- to 15-minute lesson to reteach a concept. This continues week by week, so teachers are constantly looking at the data and adjusting, rather than waiting until the end of the trimester to see where students are.

Improved alignment has also been important in moving our school forward. When I got here, we were all over the place, and it took me a year and a half to figure out who was teaching what. We’ve done a lot of work to make sure everyone has the same curriculum and resources and that they are meeting our goals. Consistency really is key.

Curriculum-Aligned Reading Material
To ensure students are receiving appropriate reading practice, we go through our multitiered systems of support process and identify the different tiers. Students then find reading material at their Lexile level. Additionally, we use an online research hub of articles and digital books to provide our students and teachers with curriculum-aligned resources in English and Spanish for use in grades K–2.

As a school, we’ve been focusing on culturally relevant practices for a while now. In the past, those projects were sent home, and some parents would end up doing a lot of the work, while other students received no support at all. The online library allows the students to conduct their own research and find their own articles and videos. If they are struggling, the program will read to them so they don’t get stuck. Students have been reading a lot of articles as a result, almost doubling from 15,722 articles in the 2021–2022 school year to 29,366 last year. And they have already read more digital books than they did last school year. They read 1,436 e-books during the entire 2022–23 school year and have already read 1,571 books from July to October to kick off this school year.

The online library has also been helpful in integrating subjects such as social studies and science into our nearly two-hour literacy block. It’s divided into five areas—animals, biography, health, science, and social studies—so it’s easy for students to find the resources to complement what they are learning in, for example, a science lesson.

It’s not always easy to see how dual language immersion benefits all students— even proficiency scores can hide the truth in early grades. But with a commitment to readjusting as the data demands and the help of resources that truly support emerging bilingual students, dual language immersion programs are better for all students.

Celia Moses is the principal at Georgia Brown Elementary School. She can be reached at [email protected].

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