Fresno Unified is investing big in its English learners, with plans to expand bilingual programs for Spanish speakers and add a new focus on Hmong students.
The district announced Wednesday that $2.5 million in next year’s school budget will go toward increasing dual language, or “two-way,” programs, which teach courses in English and Spanish, aiming to graduate fully bilingual students. The funding will also help hire more Latino and Hmong teachers and enroll more English learners in after-school and summer programs to provide tutoring.
Only three of Fresno Unified’s schools currently offer the programs, where bilingual teachers lead class in English 10 percent of the time and in Spanish 90 percent of the time, until the ratio gradually moves to 50/50. The district does not have a specific goal set for how many schools will offer the programs in the future but said it will be significant.
The district also hopes to offer the two-way programs in Hmong and indigenous languages.
For the first time, Hmong courses will be offered at all of the district’s high schools. Fresno has the second-largest Hmong population in the U.S.
“We have seen a loss in terms of our cultural identity and language in a short amount of time,” said former Fresno City Councilman Blong Xiong at Wednesday’s news conference at Fresno Unified’s headquarters. “It’s not only about educational opportunities, but really about saving a cultural identity and how we respect and treat ourselves and understand what that means.”
17,000English learners in Fresno Unified
About 17,000 students at Fresno Unified are designated English learners, mostly Spanish speakers. English learners score lower than any other student group in the district on standardized tests.
But they’ve also made strides in recent years. Since the 2013-14 school year, the number of English learners who have been redesignated as English proficient increased from 10 percent to 18 percent. “Long-term English learners” – students who go through the system without ever reaching English proficiency – have decreased by about 2,000 in the past two years.
About 450 students also graduated with a Seal of Biliteracy last year, more than 100 more than the year prior. The seal is official proof on students’ transcripts that they can speak, read and write in more than one language.
“Having their primary language not only contributes to their social-emotional well-being, but it also prepares them for their future. Bilingualism is sought in every aspect once we become adults,” said María Maldonado, who oversees Fresno Unified’s English learner services. “That is the dream for Fresno Unified: that we continue to nurture and protect those languages, and at the same time expect our kids will be proficient English speakers.”
We don’t want (students) to just catch up. We want them to actually be at the level they’re supposed to be.
Fresno Unified school board president Luis Chavez
School board president Luis Chavez, an English learner himself, said he knows firsthand that the additional support is necessary to achieve the district’s goals.
“We don’t want (students) to just catch up. We want them to actually be at the level they’re supposed to be,” he said.
The investment in English learners is a result of the Local Control Funding Formula – the state’s school finance system passed in 2013, which gives districts more authority over how money is spent. Fresno Unified held more than 60 meetings in the past year to get community input on where school funding should go.
Superintendent Michael Hanson said Fresno Unified is doing more for English learners than any other district in the state, pointing to recent talks in the Legislature about what a statewide plan for the students should look like.
“None of it came close to the type of things our community has been discussing,” he said Wednesday. “It goes far beyond what we think the state is going to adopt.”
More details about the English learner master plan will be released this summer.