‘I’m proud of me.’ How a Coast district defies the odds in MS to educate English learners.

·13 min read

Joseph Santana wanted to make sure his classmate understood.

It was the second period of the day at Pascagoula High School, and in Mr. Roberts’ Problems of American Democracy class, the juniors were studying the Progressive Era.

Santana, wearing a red hoodie and a dimpled smile, stood in front of a sheet of paper labeled “Roosevelt Corollary” with four of his classmates, trying to decide what facts to write on the paper.

Their textbook explained that the policy had resulted in the United States aggressively intervening in countries like Cuba, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.

Joseph, 16, left the Dominican Republic with his family more than two years ago. He glanced at Natalia, who is from Puerto Rico and in her first year at Pascagoula High.

“¿Tú entiendes?” he asked her.

“Un poco,” she shrugged.

Joseph cocked his head, thinking. He started to speak and then stopped.

“I don’t know how to explain it in Spanish,” he said.

Their teacher, 26-year-old Hayden Roberts, came over to check on them.

“How do you say ‘stated’ in Spanish?” Joseph asked him, grinning.

“Oh, you think you’re funny,” Roberts bantered.

English, the only language Roberts speaks, is the primary language spoken in his classroom, where about half of the students are classified as English Language Learners and are native speakers of Spanish. That means they’re working on their English at the same time that they’re learning about concepts like manifest destiny and the Spanish-American War.

But Spanish is not whispered furtively between students or discouraged in favor of English. Instead, Roberts writes directions on the board in both languages. On the walls of every classroom in the district is a poster reading, “What a Successful Professional Looks Like.” “Cómo se ve un profesional exitoso.”

Co-teacher Paula Montoya often checks students’ understanding by discussing content with them in Spanish, which she speaks fluently.

In this classroom, language is less like a barrier, and more like a puzzle everyone is working on together. It’s an unusual scene in a country known around the world as a place where most people speak only English, and in a state with one of the smallest immigrant populations in the U.S.

English as a second language teacher Paula Montoya, right, helps translate for her student, Natalia, center, during a history class at Pascagoula High School on Monday, Oct. 25, 2021.
English as a second language teacher Paula Montoya, right, helps translate for her student, Natalia, center, during a history class at Pascagoula High School on Monday, Oct. 25, 2021.

The Pascagoula-Gautier School District has by far the largest English Learner population of any on the Coast, at about 13% as of May 2021, most of whom are native Spanish speakers. That’s one of the five biggest EL populations in the state, according to data the Sun Herald requested from the state Department of Education.

The number of English Language Learners in Mississippi is growing rapidly, largely due to increasing Hispanic immigration and migration.

In 2000, only a little more than 2,000 Mississippi students were learning English. By 2018, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number had risen to nearly 15,000, or 3.2% of all students.

According to UnidosUS, the country’s largest Latino advocacy organization, from 2005 to 2015, the number of English learners in Mississippi shot up 235%, more than in any other state.

But Mississippi is not meeting the needs of EL or Hispanic students. The state’s 2021 accountability report found that students with Limited English Proficiency had a 31% dropout rate⁠— the highest of any subgroup. Hispanic students had a dropout rate of 13.1%, higher than their white, Black, and Asian peers.

In Pascagoula, however, the picture is brighter. Eighty-five percent of Hispanic students graduated on time last year, on par with the overall graduation rate and above the state and national averages for Hispanic students.

And 73% of students with Limited English Proficiency graduated in four years, also surpassing state and national averages. (That figure only includes students who are still categorized as EL when they are seniors, so it doesn’t include students who exit the EL program and then graduate. It also doesn’t include students who take extra time to graduate.)

In Mr. Roberts’ classroom that October day, there were lessons for the state as whole.

Pascagoula-Gautier has prioritized EL education by hiring an administrator dedicated to those students. It has emphasized training all teachers, not just those who are dedicated to EL, on how to design lessons for English learners. And it has worked to create a culture where students’ native languages are not a burden to be cast off, but a cause for celebration.

Angel Solivan listens as he works on his classwork during Hayden Roberts’ history class at Pascagoula High School on Monday, Oct. 25, 2021. Solivan is one of many students in the class whose first language is not English.
Angel Solivan listens as he works on his classwork during Hayden Roberts’ history class at Pascagoula High School on Monday, Oct. 25, 2021. Solivan is one of many students in the class whose first language is not English.

Coast district adapts to changing demographics

In 2000, out of about 7,000 students in Pascagoula schools, only 25 of them were learning English.

This school year, the number of EL students is about 800. Pascagoula now has the largest share of Hispanic residents of any of Mississippi’s 20 largest cities, at about 15%.

In 2016, Superintendent Wayne Rodolfich hired the district’s first administrator dedicated to English Learner instruction. He and Melissa DeAngelo had been graduate school classmates, where her dissertation focused on differentiated instruction for English learners.

At the time, she was principal of the district’s Opportunity Center. But she had personal as well as professional reasons to be interested in the new position.

Her parents met in Barcelona, when her father was stationed at a Naval base there. Her mother spoke no English and her father spoke no Spanish, but they fell in love and eventually settled in Moss Point. Growing up, DeAngelo knew only two other families with a parent who spoke a language other than English.

Rodolfich gave her a simple mandate: Figure out how to best serve EL students.

One initiative she has implemented is training content teachers in a method of instruction that research shows is more effective for EL students. Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) is a framework for lesson planning and teaching that emphasizes activities that keep students interacting with each other and using all four language skills ⁠— speaking, listening, writing, and reading ⁠— as they learn content.

Where traditional instruction might have had Roberts and Montoya lecturing about the Roosevelt Corollary from the front of the room, the SIOP approach resulted in Santana and his peers talking about it with each other.

The district began implementing SIOP about three years ago. So far, over 120 administrators and teachers have received training.

A student takes notes during Hayden Roberts’ history class at Pascagoula High School on Monday, Oct. 25, 2021. Many of the students in the class are learning English as their second language while attending classes that are taught in English.
A student takes notes during Hayden Roberts’ history class at Pascagoula High School on Monday, Oct. 25, 2021. Many of the students in the class are learning English as their second language while attending classes that are taught in English.

DeAngelo has accompanied Rodolfich on his annual visits to the homes of district 3rd graders. With Spanish-speaking families, DeAngelo can introduce herself and let parents know they can contact her with questions or issues.

Pascagoula-Gautier has hired district receptionists who are bilingual so that Spanish-speaking parents can easily get guidance when filling out registration paperwork. And the district hosts a bilingual lending library at the Opportunity Center.

In 2019, the district became the first in Mississippi to offer a seal of biliteracy to graduating seniors who demonstrate proficiency in English and another language.

DeAngelo always urges parents who speak a language other than English to nurture their children’s relationship with that language as well.

“I tell them, find books in your language and have them read,” she said.

Correcting the record on EL, immigrant families

Part of DeAngelo’s job has involved educating state and local politicians about Pascagoula’s EL community.

The percentage of Mississippi residents who were born in other countries is the second-lowest in the nation, behind only West Virginia. When leaders of this deep red state do discuss immigrants, they most often cast them as a threat at the country’s southern border, rather than as valued members of communities across Mississippi.

And in a poor state with a struggling educational system, a group that is growing rapidly but still comprises less than 5% of all students has not been a priority.

States like Arkansas, North Carolina and Alabama provide districts with additional funding for EL students, which they can use to hire staff and buy supplies. Mississippi allocates no extra state funding for EL students. Instead, Mississippi districts rely on federal Title III funding, distributed on a per-pupil basis.

One point DeAngelo has made when she explains the need for resources for English Learners: The vast majority of EL students in the district are U.S. citizens.

“You can live here, be born here, and your children are English Learners,” she said. “That’s just the way it is.”

A few years ago, Rodolfich said, Mississippi legislators were considering ways to try to track undocumented immigrants in the state. One idea was to require public schools to ask for proof of citizenship. A legislator called Rodolfich to ask what he thought.

He told him that it was a bad idea. (The Supreme Court has held that kids in the U.S., regardless of their immigration status, are entitled to K-12 education.)

“My thing was, I’m not losing the trust of people who are trusting me with their children, by being the guy that’s looking at their immigration status,” he said.

Reinaldo Caraballo, Angel Solivan, center, and Joseph Santana, center right, participate in a group activity during a history class at Pascagoula High School on Monday, Oct. 25, 2021.
Reinaldo Caraballo, Angel Solivan, center, and Joseph Santana, center right, participate in a group activity during a history class at Pascagoula High School on Monday, Oct. 25, 2021.

Designing classes that work for English learners

On another day in Problems of American Democracy, class started with “bellringer,” a question students answered on their own when they first arrived. “What were the causes of the Spanish-American War?”

Roberts read the question in Spanish, which was written alongside the English version on the board.

“Cuales son las causas—”

“COW-sas!” came a chorus of voices, including Santana’s, as the Spanish speakers in the room corrected Roberts’ pronunciation.

“—COW-sas de la guerra hispanoamericano?”

“There ya go!” a student cheered.

Later, Roberts and Montoya had the students form two circles. Those in the inner circle held index cards with questions like “How did the U.S. claim Hawaii?” Those in the outer circle answered the questions and then rotated.

The room became a cacophony of teenage voices speaking English and Spanish: “Alfred T. Mahan.” “Sugarcane, si, pero no en Cuba.”

Montoya walked around the circle, checking in on each pair. Sometimes she asked questions to get students to think more deeply.

Occasionally she explained concepts in Spanish.

“Old school, this would be chaos,” said DeAngelo, who had come to observe the class. “This isn’t chaos. This is an everyday classroom now, where they’re moving and they’re talking.”

The “inclusion class” is designed to serve EL students alongside their peers, rather than placing them in separate classrooms.

“The challenge is to meet their needs and the English speakers’ as well,” Roberts said.

When the school year began, Montoya said, it was hard to get students to participate, in any language.

SIOP activities like the “inside-outside circle” helped change that.

“It’s how we get our EL and our English-speaking kids to kind of communicate with each other, learn from each other, so we don’t have all the separation,” Montoya said.

Hayden Roberts, a history teacher at Pascagoula High School, reads from a textbook in English to his class on Monday, Oct. 25, 2021.
Hayden Roberts, a history teacher at Pascagoula High School, reads from a textbook in English to his class on Monday, Oct. 25, 2021.

From the Dominican Republic to Pascagoula

When Joseph left the Dominican Republic, he spent three months living in New York City. Then, in the summer, he and his mom moved to Pascagoula to join his adult sister and her husband.

He remembers what it was like walking into the cafeteria at Pascagoula High School, where it seemed like everyone else had grown up together, and where almost everyone spoke a language he didn’t yet understand.

“I didn’t know where to go,” he said. “I didn’t know nobody in lunch. I didn’t have nobody to sit with. I was kind of feeling, kind of sad.”

Even basic interactions were difficult at first.

“Sometimes people trying to talk to you, and you can’t say anything back, ‘cause you don’t know what to say,” he said.

Gradually, he made friends with other “new kids.” And with the help of EL teacher Megan Morgan, watching movies, and talking to friends, he learned English, too.

Now, he has assumed a role familiar to bilingual students at Pascagoula High: interpreting for Spanish-speaking peers and sometimes assisting English-speaking teachers.

That’s what Santana was doing that day in Problems of American Democracy. He notices if it seems like a classmate isn’t following the discussion, and tries to help when he can.

“Sometimes it is tiring,” he said. “I don’t know how to say something in Spanish… Sometimes I explain something and they don’t understand it.”

When that happens, he waits for Montoya to come and help.

Some students said that can feel like a double-edged sword: They like being able to help, but the stakes are high. What if they explain something wrong?

“If I do this wrong, then they’ll be wrong,” said senior Jackelyn Facio, whose parents are from Mexico. “I know it wouldn’t get them in trouble… For me it just stresses me out. How are they ever gonna learn? Is there a better way for me to help? How do I help better?”

Effective EL instruction does not require that a teacher speak their students’ first languages; at one school DeAngelo visited outside of Atlanta, dozens of languages, like Somali and Tigrinya, were spoken among the student body.

But having more teachers and staff who are fluent in Spanish would be helpful, some students said.

Jackelyn and her twin sister Carolyn participated in the EL program at Cherokee Elementary. They still remember the first time they had a teacher who was Latina and fluent in Spanish.

“I think that was the first Hispanic person working at our school that wasn’t a janitor. Ms. Rodriguez,” Carolyn said.

“I used to think that my mom knew every Hispanic person,” Jackelyn said. “When we would go to Walmart, I’d be like, ‘Mom, do you know her?’... When you’re young, I feel like all Hispanic ladies have a motherly, nurturing vibe. It felt comfortable.”

Camelee Smith, left, looks at her textbook during class at Pascagoula High School in Pascagoula on Monday, Oct. 25, 2021.
Camelee Smith, left, looks at her textbook during class at Pascagoula High School in Pascagoula on Monday, Oct. 25, 2021.

‘I’m proud of me’

Pascagoulans who have spent time in the district’s EL program have earned national honors, like the Gates Millenium Scholarship and admission to the U.S. Naval Academy. Seniors who are still classified as EL have graduated in the top 10% of their class.

The debate team includes many former EL students, like the Facios, and the team’s officers are all Hispanic. When they travel to tournaments around the state, they notice their team stands out in an activity historically dominated by wealthy, majority-white schools.

“When we go to like Jackson or Hattiesburg, we bring all the color to tournaments,” Carolyn said. “All the tournaments are mainly white people.”

Every year, students like Joseph work their way to confidence in a new language. Looking back, he finds the process almost mysterious.

“How did I learn English?” he said. “Because it’s difficult. For real, it’s difficult.”

At the beginning of this school year, he realized something had shifted: He easily understood his teachers’ questions. In the past, he had struggled on exams, because he was struggling with the language. Early this school year, he earned close to a perfect score on a history test.

“I was like dang, ‘I’m proud of me, ‘cause back in the day, I used to make a lot of bad grades because I ain’t know what I was doing,” he said.

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