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Real Talk: Fresno Takes On Dual Language Learning

Professional Development Systems Innovation
Photo Credit: Sarah Jackson

As in many classrooms across the country, more and more Fresno children are dual-language learners. In 2015, Fresno Unified School District began an unprecedented initiative to address early language learning. The Packard Foundation’s Starting Smart and Strong Initiative supports this effort.

Today, The Lab works with the Fresno Unified School District, the Central Valley Children’s Services Network, Economic Opportunities Commission Head Start and Early Head Start, and The Lighthouse for Children on implementing unique professional development models. Chris Sciarrino, The Lab’s Director of Early Childhood Practice and Innovation, is joined by educators and parents, and language experts like Dr. Linda Espinosa in this effort.

Chris speaks to how the Lab is working with Fresno to innovate new approaches to dual language learning in this interview by The Lab’s Director of Communications and Knowledge Transfer, Sarah Flores. Stay tuned for future updates.


Tell us a little bit about The Lab’s work in Fresno on the Starting Smart and Strong initiative, especially at the start?

Fresno has such a distinctive culture and sense of family. There’s a wonderful feeling of appreciation across the board, towards us, and towards others in the working group. You are embraced as if you were family. That’s really unique.

Sure, initially there was a little bit of, “We’ve been doing this a long time, so how is this going to be any different?” This is not unusual, often times there are a lot of questions or confusion about how innovation works and people wonder, “How will this help?” But once we brought in experts like Linda Espinosa, they were able to show everyone in that room that there was much to be learned. This was a real unifying force. They really appreciated this expertise and that we all came to their home town.

In Fresno, many of our teachers themselves were dual language learners, and being understood by the experts was also important. “Ah, we’re finally getting people who understand what we think, feel and have lived.”

One teacher told the most amazing story about when she was in a high school ESL class. She said, “They talked to us as though we were stupid. It wasn’t the content I couldn’t get, it was the language I didn’t understand.” Finally, a counselor said to her, “We’re going to get you in a different class where they’re not going to be breaking apart the sentences, just doing translation.” She felt like that was the first time in her education somebody recognized what was happening to her.

Overall, the most important unifying force was their desire to help the children. “Oh my goodness, this is going to be so good for our children.” In Fresno, there is this real sense of “our children.” I think that’s also what I mean by family.

What is innovative about The Lab’s work in Fresno?

Fresno Unified decided to focus on reaching the 32% of Fresno’s children who are dual language learners and brought in key community partners including Head Start and Early Head Start, The Children’s Services Network and The Lighthouse to jointly address this shared issue. This is a key ingredient in our co-creation work – bringing all players together to create a positive impact in their community.

What’s innovative about our approach is that we recognized that by improving how we address dual language learning, we can also address challenges with low language learners – or those who are low skilled in language development. This is important because language is the foundation for conceptual development in all learning areas and for all learners.

How does co-creation fit in?

I would say that it is the first time that these organizations have worked together to collectively address professional development with a laser focus on teaching practices. They probably sat at the same planning tables before, but to come together on trying to learn how to solve this particular issue, that is new.

There’s been a leveling of the playing field that I have not experienced very often. From the home providers to the district teachers to the Head Start and Early Start teachers and their assistants, there’s been release of roles and a true building of respect and appreciation for each person’s unique role.

It is an important step since generally, we’ve been fairly siloed in our field. You’re either a birth to five person, a birth to three person, a three to five person, a school district three to five person or you’re a three to five person in a Head Start. You get the idea. This makes for different perceptions about how quality is implemented and who’s best equipped to do it.

What’s unique about what’s happening here is that kind of thinking is absent. They’re saying, “We’re all equal at this table. We each have something to add value and we each have something to learn.”

We chose Dr. Linda Espinosa’s work as this intervention’s backbone; these are a set of very good practices for all children with adaptation specific to dual language learners. In other words, the strategy we’re doing with a child who has low language skills is equally good for a child with dual language needs, who is growing in two languages.

This is extremely timely, as California has just voted to reverse its longstanding policy of English-only teaching. In the past ten years, research and neuroscience advances have actually demonstrated a distinct advantage, rather than disadvantage, when children know two languages. It’s a perfect time to adjust our teaching strategies to match the research and the mandate of California voters.

What’s The Lab’s role in all of this?

We are the ones helping to maintain the focus, bringing the experts to the table, and helping shift the paradigm with them. We work through “levers,” from district administrators to teachers, parents and coaches, so that all are involved with what models, tools and strategies are employed and so – bottom-up to top-down – people can support each other.

Can you share a way that The Lab’s approach differs from the more traditional approach?

Traditionally, teachers are trained on a variety of different learning models that target distinct focus areas. In Fresno, we are also taking a classroom-by-classroom, tailored language approach. Coaches and technical assistants are developing customized strategies that are tailored to both the teacher and children’s language proficiencies in a given classroom. We’re taking this micro approach to learn what it really takes to do this well and to then scale to a more macro level.

We like to “go small to go big.” In other words, for us, an innovation doesn’t have to be big to be important or to have a big impact.

The concept of “Continuous Improvement” is more widely known in the field; how would you say innovation or a “Learning and Innovation” approach is different?

More often than not, “Continuous Improvement” is looked at as accountability. Educators can feel it as punitive, “Look at this data so that you know where we’re low so you do the right things.” Looking at data is obviously not a bad thing, but in this case, you are looking at what you’re doing wrong, instead of what you’re doing right.

Also, it’s really about how it is applied in the classroom. We develop a menu of things to try out for a couple of months. During that time, the teacher and coach focus on those strategies and the teacher self-reflects on a daily/weekly schedule. Then we look at that collectively at a monthly checkpoint, and then we do a quarterly review. This allows for “rapid iteration” or adjusting/changing strategies as they are being tried out.

With ‘Learning and Innovation,’ we are making the teacher the reflector of the action, giving them a strong role so that they are at the table when the data is being reviewed and decisions are being made. Whenever I’ve had data discussions with teachers, they get it. The issue is making the data meaningful, motivating and useful rather than an issue of accountability.

We see data as testing professional development (PD). The outcome measure tells us if our PD has been effective. What we’re really trying to say is, “Is what we’re doing in our PD helping you do those strategies across the day and in different content areas? Are you getting as much impact from these strategies as you can?”

We don’t want to tell teachers how to see it. We want to teachers to have tools to help them self-reflect. With those tools, the coach can self-reflect with them and facilitate a discussion that feels meaningful and focused.

So where does this all go?

We’re hoping to come up with practices and approaches that are breakthrough. We also try to document all that we’re doing, so that at the end of the day, at the end of a year, we can say, “We have three things that we did here that we really think made the difference.” Those are the ones that we want to scale and try in other places.

We also hope to explore how technology can help scale solutions and professional development. We think we can get some scale and economy of scale by using technology for coaching to supplement face to face interactions.

What is your biggest hope for your work in Fresno?

My biggest hope is that Fresno teachers actually express that this works for them and that it works for children.

Right now, people are starting to say, “Oh, now I get it.” Or, “Oh, that’s a little different than what I understood before.” That makes me feel good about our work there.

We also are looking at the ways to build a capacity pipeline for innovation within districts. We’d like to find those who embrace this “teaching and learning” way and support them to become the next leaders.

But most importantly, as we dig in on the Learning and Innovation approach, looking deeply at data, I would like to see us continue to help teachers discover the joy of knowing that simple shifts in practice can really change children’s trajectory for learning. That is what I’d like our motivator to be as early childhood educators.

And finally, I hope that policymakers start paying more attention. We’ve got the brain research. We’ve got the credibility. This is clearly a watershed moment to make big change for our youngest kids. We’re now beyond focusing on the ‘what’ and we’re laser focused on the ‘how.’