As a teenaged immigrant from Ecuador, Laura C. Morana learned English the old-fashioned way. No English as Second Language classes, no bilingual ed, just grind-it-out translations of her biology and algebra lessons, watching TV and talking to fellow students at Irvington High School. In this, she was pushed by her parents.

“They were very supportive and knew the need for us, and them, to learn it,” she says.

Today, her life experience as an immigrant and career educator gives Morana a perspective not often heard in the debate about the rising number of Hispanic students in American schools. For starters, she says, it’s wrong to assume, as some critics do, that new Americans don’t want to learn English.

“They may settle in language communities, but we can’t generalize,” she says. “It depends on level of education and aspiration for their kids. Young families here are learning English. They want that for their kids.”

Morana, who recently completed her first year as Superintendent of Schools in Red Bank, sat down with redbankgreen‘s Linda G. Rastelli earlier this week to talk about language education, the importance of “rigorous curriculum,” and what she’s doing to control costs.

As the new school year begins, what are the top three issues that the Red Bank school system is confronting?

The biggest challenge is the enhancement of our language arts literacy program, focusing our instruction in reading and writing, from pre-K to 8th grade. [Second,] enhancing the rigor of the middle school curriculum, for one thing by establishing an honors program. The third would be the ongoing assessment of student learning, which has been in place but not as comprehensive as it could be.

In just a few years, the ethnic makeup of Red Bank’s student population has undergone a radical change. According to the Star-Ledger, Red Bank led all 623 school districts statewide in Hispanic student enrollment growth from 2000 to 2006. At that point, 57.9 percent of students in the Red Bank schools were Hispanic, up 32.8 percent over six years. How has that impacted the cost of educating our kids?

Out of the 61 percent Hispanic population this year, one of the things to keep in mind is that not every child, just because he or she is Hispanic, is in need of bilingual or ESL services, which means hiring additional teachers. In fact, last year, 18 percent of the primary student population and 14 percent at the middle school level needed those services. We’re only talking about 45 kids at the most.

The heaviest concentration of bilingual ESL children is at the preschool and kindergarten level, so there we do have additional ESL teachers. However, throughout the year, if the children are receiving the services they need at ages 3 and 4, particularly if they have a foundation in their own language, English is acquired within a year, a year and half at most. At the first grade level, many of the children are going into general education classrooms. By the end of third grade you want to make sure they have the English to handle the work, not just conversation with friends. We’re unlike neighboring districts who don’t have ESL populations, therefore our cost is in the area of ESL services more than anything else.

How does this affect the non-Hispanic school population? Are English-speaking students being shortchanged because other students need language help?

They’re not being shortchanged at all. At each of the grade levels, we establish a bilingual self-contained classroom, which means that out of six kindergarten classrooms that we have, one of those is bilingual. If I don’t speak English, I’m going to that class. However, the additional five classes are general education classes instructed by general education teachers, with maybe one child, maybe, maybe not, with limited English — his level is high enough for him to be mainstreamed into that class, so instruction is not interrupted or modified in any way at all.

There’s one bilingual classroom at each of the grade levels because of an increase in enrollment. The other five classes are not dealing with those issues at all. There’s a combination 4th and 5th grade bilingual level class. By 5th or 6th grade most of the children are mainstreamed. You may have 1-3 in each class period but the teacher is there to do what is needed. Our expectations are the same for them as they are for the monolingual children. We want them to be able to keep up and be just as successful. No special qualifications are made, nor does this instruction interfere with the learning of the other children at all.

Do you know what percentage of the Hispanic kids are American citizens by birth? There’s a perception that most are here illegally.

No, we’re not responsible for or required to have that information. For the state, we do have to collect data on kids, indicating place of birth and city of birth, which was a challenge. One of the things we do is to make every effort to verify that a family lives in Red Bank. If they don’t provide us with proof, the children are not allowed to attend.

Let’s move on to the No Child Left Behind issue. What do you think of the law — does it result in better elementary education?

I feel that NCLB is certainly having a positive impact on student learning, particularly in low performing schools or urban settings. In general, the fact that we have guidelines, mandates, expectations that are higher than ever, is helping at primary, middle and high school levels as well.

The state Department of Education says Red Bank didn’t make Adequate Yearly Progress in the Middle School, which you dispute. In terms that those of use who aren’t in the education industry can understand, what’s this all about?

There is a discrepancy between my calculation and preliminary calculation by DOE. I have reached out to NJ DOE and will complete the appeal process.

Adequate yearly progress is calculated using a different formula this year. It’s based on performance of students on state assessments in grades 3,4,5, 6, 7 and 8. One of the things the state did was break down the results by demographic subgroups. [With a total population of 335 students in the middle school,] we’re quite diverse. You have to break it down by special education services, bilingual and ESL, Hispanic, black, white, Asian, Pacific Islander, native Americans and economically disadvantaged (eligible for free or reduced school lunch). We have a number who fit more than one category.

Looking at the performance over the last 3 or 4 years, there has been steady progress. Last year, the school did not meet AYP because of a technical error in the way the information was reported by the district. I found that out when I got here. One of the areas called for is that at least 95 percent are participating in the state assessments. A coding error dropped us to 94 percent. You cannot go below 95 percent. It was the participation rate that brought the district down.

This year, subgroups of Hispanic and economically disadvantaged, and total population, were areas where in language arts children did not meet the benchmark set by the DOE. We did not meet AYP and we advanced to the next level of sanctions. This is where we are right now. In this case, we’re basically looking at the same group of kids. It’s not as if we are failing to provide for the children in any way, or that a certain group may not be challenged at all. We’re looking at the Hispanic economically disadvantaged and total population and ESL group — it is a big group. They’re still learning the language. They’re not fully proficient and may not be for another year.

The law does not allow for any accommodations in that particular respect. The intent of the law is to meet the needs of all the children and that curriculum is rigorous for everyone, whether special education or general ed. The content standards are the basis for teaching. It’s not a problem. I just wish that the state or the NCLB itself would make some allowances for a child who may still be learning a language. The research clearly shows that it’s very unrealistic for someone to become so fluent in a second language — to become fully proficient takes more than a year or two. Everyone should be held to high standards and challenged, that is key.

Does the law’s emphasis on Adequate Yearly Progress change the way you teach? For better or worse?

NCLB basically has provided a framework for what we teach. You’re emphasizing high-quality teaching, you’re emphasizing research-based practices. You’re held accountable for the success of the children in your school. It has changed the way teachers teach, and the way schools decide curriculum, because you’re looking at a truly rigorous set of standards everyone is held to whether you’re in special ed or general ed. In some ways it may be unfair or unrealistic for some to meet in a year or two.

I am not for lowering standards in any way. But we could consider a progress model. How do you account for Johnny, who’s making so much progress in ESL, but isn’t ready to be held to that? The law does not allow for that.


Is the testing a valid way to measure progress?

Testing is very, very important. Looking at New Jersey’s assessments, some people say, ‘teachers must be teaching to the test.’ I don’t see how you can possibly teach to the test. What you do need to do is provide some very rigorous and comprehensive instruction in reading, writing and mathematics for children to be able to develop into solid readers and writers and do math problems.

The assessments are not about fill-in-the-blank or multiple-choice. You do need to use critical thinking. They’ve impacted the way we teach, which is a good thing. Everyone has moved away from an approach that requires children to just memorize information. Testing now requires more of the children. We’re going to see some more changes in the state assessments. The state is working on that.

The Red Bank schools continue to suffer from an image problem, the idea that they’re not up to snuff, quality-wise. The “five and fly” phenomenon remains quite strong among families with children just reaching school age.

I have heard that, and I have used that in a way to plan a lot of the curricular initiatives in the district. For example, what does a family want for his or her child? Obviously you want a challenging curriculum, that your child will grow and develop within a welcoming and supportive environment. At the preschool level we have a wonderful, wonderful curriculum. I would want my daughter [now a college student] to be in it, because she would be in a very diverse classroom setting. The curriculum individualizes and differentiates instruction in such a way that a child continues to develop his or her skills and is never held back and is never not stimulated. It’s a curriculum that truly looks at the individual, so if you’re reading and writing when you come into the program, you’ll continue to develop your skills while the other children develop at their own pace.

I’m trying to educate the community and change that perception by not only clarifying some issues but by enhancing the overall program. The kindergarten program we just instituted at the beginning of September is a model I’ve used in other districts. It’s developmentally appropriate, and a model I’d want my own child to be in.

In the first through fourth grades, we’ve done a great deal to increase the rigor. We have a brand new instructional program and materials for language arts literacy, and our teachers have undergone training. Our program for the gifted and talented that we put into place last year is enhanced this year. It’s not just academics, but also music, art, science, mathematics and technology. We had 70 kids out of 456 in that program in the primary school last year. We introduced Spanish at the pre-K level this year. Our music program now includes violin. We’ve hired 12 new wonderful teachers this year, including three instructional assistants.

You’ve just introduced a Chinese language program. How many students are learning Chinese now?

We’ve started the program with one middle school teacher. At the middle school, we have Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. We have approximately 200 children participating this year, some for half a year and others a full year. We’ll have it five days per week next year. Sixth, seventh and eighth-graders had a choice between Spanish and Chinese, and the interest was there. We’re very excited about the program. I’ve seen in the last two days that the children are very eager, positive and responsive, the teachers are so very dynamic and so enthusiastic. Everyone’s having a wonderful experience.

Chinese will make the kids very marketable if they pursue business careers. You hear so much about how flat the world is today, and the need for bilingualism, particularly in Chinese. There wasn’t a great deal of convincing to do. The expectation is that by the end of the school year, everyone with one year will be able to identify things, ask questions — a great deal of emphasis is on oral communication.

How do you answer critics — some who’ve posted comments on redbankgreen — who say all your emphasis should be on teaching the kids English?

Once again, it clearly reflects the misperception of the community that Hispanic children don’t speak English. There’s a major confusion that’s existed ,even within the district, about what did it mean to be Hispanic, what did it mean to be bilingual? A lovely family back in March asked me. The little one was entering kindergarten and [her mother] wanted to know how would the bilingual instruction interfere? I said, ‘Oh, no, clearly something is being misunderstood here. Being Hispanic doesn’t mean you don’t speak English at all, or we are watering down the curriculum. No, that’s not the case.

Schools everywhere say they’re doing everything they can to keep a lid on cost growth, yet property taxes keep rising. What’s the solution?

This year, for the very first time, we could not exceed a cap imposed by the Governor, unlike prior years. One of the key things we did to develop the ’07-’08 budget was to institute zero-based management, which truly enabled everyone in the district to analyze what’s the gap between what we have and what we need? And how can we reorganize personnel to maximize our dollars? We did this extensive process that enabled us to come in under cap, under 4 percent, and we saw a reduction in taxes.

We have also been pretty ambitious in terms of looking for funding through private sources. We got an $80,000 US DOE grant for the expansion of the world languages program. It’ll be $82,000 next year and $85,000 after that. Our partnerships with various organizations, whether it’s the Count Basie Theatre providing an instructor or artist or professional, that’s a cost we didn’t have to deal with. Community members have supported our efforts, they see the district is going in the right direction and were very generous.

We’ve received generous donations, such as an $100,000 anonymous private donation. Universities have been wonderful, although no blank check! Students provide one-on-one tutoring and work with our staff in language arts literacy, serving on our committees. The YMCA has been wonderful; it has planned a field day with us. Little gestures may translate into a lot of money, and the communication I’ve really looked forward to establishing. It’s beginning to pay off. We’re always looking for grants and opportunities to collaborate. Fair Haven is sharing a music teacher with us, and we’re sharing the cost of the curriculum design. The principals know there isn’t an open checkbook. They have to budget items or they won’t have them. It makes them careful. We take budgeting very seriously.

Another way to reduce costs is to keep children from going to out-of-district placements. We’ve created some programs in district, saving a lot of money. We have three children now in a new program for children with behavioral disabilities, determined by special ed criteria. That was costing us $180,000 before. We’re spending $80K, maybe $100K.

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