Community Advocates Call for Expanded Multilingual Learner Support

Belén Dumont

Through decades of academic and professional achievements, memories of being penalized for speaking Spanish at school have stayed with Delia Arellano-Weddleton of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. 

“I know that we can do better for our bilingual children,” Director of Engagement & Partnerships Arellano-Weddleton stated. “To do so will take intentional steps, including passing and implementing policies, allocating financial resources, nurturing mindsets and environments that value multilingual children and their families.”

About 11% of Rhode Island students from Pre-K to grade 12 were multilingual/English learners (MLL/EL) during the 2020-2021 school year—nearly double from a decade ago.  

Multilingual/English learners that school year spoke 92 different languages, although 81% spoke Spanish. Around 70% of these students attended school in Central Falls (45%), Providence (33%), Pawtucket (16%), and Woonsocket (11%), according to a new publication.

RI Kids Count released Multilingual Learners in Rhode Island Monday afternoon in a virtual event. Watch the full presentation HERE.   

The publication explores common challenges that multilingual and English learners face across Rhode Island along with state-wide recommendations to effectively support these students and address educational disparities. 

Community leaders at the event discussed the alarming gaps in high school graduation and college enrollment rates between multilingual/English learners and their peers. 

In the Rhode Island Class of 2021, 84% of all students had graduated high school in four years while 69% of MLL/ELs had graduated in four years, according to the publication. 

About 59% of the entire Class of 2021 were immediately enrolled in college, while 33% of MLL/ELs were immediately enrolled in college. The majority of MLL/EL students enrolled in college two-year college programs rather than four-year programs. 

“I think, overall, our programs need to think about centering multilingual learners as the norm across all of our education programs,” Rhode Island College Assistant Professor Erin Papa said.

Papa pointed to partnerships between the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE), the Office of Postsecondary Education, and all higher education institutions to continue addressing barriers that prevent or discourage multilingual students from entering undergraduate and graduate programs.

In 2020-2021, dropout rates were the highest among Multilingual/English Learners at 18% dropping out—compared to 8% of all students—according to the publication. 

High School students who are chronically absent have higher chances of dropping out, emphasized University of Rhode Island Associate Professor Rabia Hos. Around 44% of MLL/ELs were chronically absent, the highest of any subgroup in the 2020-2021 school year.

The new publication also highlighted that multilingual/English learners are more likely to live in low-income households and attend high-poverty schools than their peers. 

“Studies show that it is not the home language, it’s not the fact that you’re a multilingual learner—it’s the poverty rate associated when you are a multilingual learner that is a more significant predictor of your academic achievement than anything else. So, it’s poverty levels,” explained Senior Policy Analyst Jessica Vega of RI Kids Count. 

The Blueprint for Multilingual Learner Success

Wednesday morning, March 1, state leaders announced that $322,899 in Multilingual Learner Success Grants would be awarded to ten local education agencies—kicking off the second phase of the Blueprint for Multilingual Learner Success

In 2001, RIDE first partnered with community-based organizations to develop the Blueprint for MLL Success, according to RI Kids Count. The final version was released in 2021.

As a part of the Blueprint, RIDE planned to spend 2021-2023 focused on engagement, expanding dual-language programs, revising regulations and policies, along with strengthening parent and community partnerships. Starting this year, RIDE looks to fully implement these policies by 2026.

Governor Dan McKee has also proposed to increase funding for multilingual learner support by $7.8 million in his #RIReady FY24 budget proposal.

Dual Language Programs 

Across the country, dual language programs have expanded as new initiatives to support the nation’s growing bilingual and multilingual student population. 

“Dual language programs…have so much potential,” Vega said. “Dual language programs are a way to teach students that will honor and celebrate their home language.”

In these programs, students learn and engage in two different languages: students will spend half of the day communicating in one particular language and then, for the second half of the day, continue with the same material in a second language. 

Schools in Central Falls, Pawtucket, and Providence currently offer dual-language programs—all involving either Spanish or Portuguese and English. 

“The goal is, if we have an increased pipeline of dual language teachers who are certified and world language teachers, then we’re able to open up more dual language programs throughout the state,” Vega explained. “And it’s really important that students who come from low-income communities have access to these programs because studies show, if you support a student’s proficiency in their home language, it actually improves their English proficiency as well.”

In 2020-2021, 5% of all Rhode Island public school teachers and instructional coordinators held an active Bilingual, Dual Language, or English to Speakers of Other Languages certification, according to RI Kids Count. 

One proposed policy, the Multilingual Educator Investment Act, looks to increase the number of multilingual educators in urban communities through an annual two-million dollar scholarship fund for teacher employment. 

Other recommendations in the Multilingual Learners in Rhode Island publication include improving data collection to identify MLL/EL students, providing high-quality early childhood care to MLL/EL students with developmental delays or disabilities, proactively responding to the challenges and needs of Newcomers, and enhancing assessment tools to effectively support Newcomers.

Available at, the Multilingual Learners in Rhode Island publication includes further context and recommendations on resources for multilingual/English learners and Newcomer students across the state.
Hear more about RI Kids Count’s work in RI Latino News’ Opinion+ Interview with Deputy Director Stephanie Geller below.