The Madison Metropolitan School District has the highest concentration of English language learners in the state compared to other large school districts, and Madison students speak over 109 languages, according to data from MMSD and the federal education department.

A January 2018 report from the U.S. Department of Education said nearly 65 percent of Wisconsin English language learners —or English learners (ELs) as they are called in the new federal legislation— listed Spanish as their home language in the 2014-2015 school year. The second-most popular home language in the state is Hmong, representing just over 15 percent of ELs. Wisconsin is home to the second highest concentration of Hmong-speaking students in the country, behind Minnesota.

The breakdown is similar for MMSD, with 70 percent of ELs speaking Spanish at home, followed by nearly 9 percent of ELs speaking Hmong in the 2015-2016 school year, the most recent data available. Mandarin, Arabic and Mandinka round out the top five most-popular home languages in the district.

In the 2017-2018 school year, 28 percent of MMSD students were classified as ELs, up from just over one-fifth of students in 2007.

Silvia Romero-Johnson, executive director of MMSD’s office of multilingual and global education, said the district has seen a “slow but steady” increase in ELs over the last decade.

For the majority languages — Spanish and Hmong — MMSD offers two instructional models, developmental bilingual education (DBE) and dual language immersion (DLI). Students in DBE classes all speak the same home language, while DLI students come from both English- and Spanish-speaking households. DBE programs are available in Spanish at Hawthorne and Stephens elementary schools and Hmong at Lakeview Elementary School.

Aside from student composition, the instructional models are the same for both programs, with bilingual teachers delivering instruction in English and the other language. For both DBE and DLI kindergarten students who have joined the district since the 2016-2017 school year, half of their lessons are in English and the other half in the target language.

Before 2016, 90 percent of kindergarten instruction was delivered in the target language and 10 percent in English. As students moved up a grade, teachers would incorporate 10 percent more English, until students were 50-50 in both languages by fourth grade.

Romero-Johnson said the objectives for both programs are the same.

“The ultimate goal is for students to exit from their programs when they’ve reached full proficiency in the English language,” she said.

DLI is widely available throughout the district with offerings at Allis, Chavez, Falk, Glendale, Leopold, Lincoln, Midvale, Sandberg and Schenk elementary schools. Nuestro Mundo Community School is completely DLI. Starting next school year, EL families entering kindergarten at Thoreau will have the option to enroll their child in a DLI program with district-provided transportation.

DLI programs are also available at Cherokee, Jefferson, Sennett and Sherman middle schools.

Given that the majority of DLI students attend La Follette or West for high school, both offer several language arts and social studies classes in Spanish for students who want to continue instruction in the language.

For students who speak the less-common languages, MMSD offers English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction. In that model, students are paired with an ESL teacher or bilingual resource specialist in their classes where they receive language and content support. Telephone translators are also available if there is no one in the building who speaks the student's home language.

“We certainly want to create an environment where home languages are respected and appreciated,” Romero-Johnson said.

“Routines and visuals are important so kids can have consistency and start making meaning with what is happening in the classroom. As they start moving (language proficiency) levels, ESL teachers work with classroom teachers to implement pedagogical practices that allow students to be active participants.”

Next school year, Wisconsin districts will start rolling out reforms from the Every Student Succeeds Act. This legislation, passed by President Obama in 2015, replaced No Child Left Behind as the governing elementary and secondary education policy.

For English learners, ESSA calls for states to standardize their identification and evaluation methods across school districts and hold schools accountable for students’ progression to English proficiency. Wisconsin’s goal is to raise the percentage of ELs who are on track to proficiency from 61 percent to 79 percent by the 2020-2021 school year.

ESSA will also mandate schools report the number of long-term ELs. Wisconsin allows students six to eight years, depending on if they entered Wisconsin schools as kindergartners or later, to earn English proficiency before they’re classified as long-term ELs. The majority of other school districts in the country listed a five-to-six year limit in their ESSA plans.

Romero-Johnson called the new long-term EL requirement a “double-edged sword.” While research shows it takes students, on average, four to seven years to become proficient in English, the state’s ESSA plan does not take into account a student’s level of education or life experiences before they enrolled in Wisconsin schools.

“It’s a big change. We have to make sure we really work tightly with schools to make sure all teachers understand the needs of English language learners," she said. "Our students are enrolled in all of our schools and virtually every teacher is a teacher of an English language learner."

“(Reaching proficiency) is a very individual process, but, at the same time, we can see patterns. Students who have had access to schooling in their home countries can progress through the levels faster than if you have interrupted or very little schooling... In those cases, it may take longer, but the legislation does not make any distinction about that background.”

For students with limited English proficiency who enter MMSD for the first time in high school, the district offers “sheltered courses,” subject-area classes taught by teachers who have ESL and content-specific certifications so students can learn the language and academic content simultaneously.

“I think we’re getting to the point where people understand that we can’t ask the kids to learn the language first, wait years doing that, and then take classes. We are doing it concurrently,” Romero-Johnson said.

Romero-Johnson said the four-year graduation rate for ELs was 80 percent, five percentage points behind the district’s overall average. The six-year rate for ELs is 90 percent, on par with the average.

Subscribe to our newsletters

* indicates required

View previous campaigns.