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Classes taught in both languages help students from various backgrounds, but many districts have fought to keep Spanish out of schools.
The USA TODAY Network is launching a series on the Latino community in the USA called Hecho en USA, or made in America. Roughly 80% of all Latinos living in the USA are American citizens, but media coverage of Hispanics tends to focus on immigration and crime, instead of how Latino families live, work and learn in their hometowns. Hecho en USA tells the stories of the nation’s 59.9 million Latinos – a growing economic and cultural force, many of whom are born in the USA.
LOS ANGELES – Preschool teacher Rosa Ramirez has a special way of asking her students to line up for playtime outside.
“Pueden pararse si llevan puesto algo de color amarillo, como una abeja,” she tells them.
In English, Ramirez would say, “You can stand up if you are wearing yellow – like a bee.” But this is the half of the school day in which she teaches exclusively in Spanish.
Her students are not confused by her language choice. Most of the 4-year-olds wearing even a smidgen of yellow stand up as instructed.
Bilingual education programs can help children from all backgrounds become better students
Research shows that dual-language programs where children learn both Spanish and English are especially helpful for Latino English-language learners. Editors note: Video has been updated to remove a student who opted out of appearing in photos and video.
HARRISON HILL, USA TODAY
The preschool dual-language program at Gates Street Early Education Center in Lincoln Heights, one of Los Angeles’ oldest neighborhoods with dense populations of Latino and Asian residents, is part of a growing number of bilingual education models taking root in California and across the country. Many of them are designed to serve students from Spanish-speaking families, as well as students from other cultures, under mounting evidence that learning two languages can help people from all backgrounds become stronger students.
Roughly 3.8 million students in U.S. schools are native Spanish-speakers who are not proficient in English. They make up the bulk of the approximately 5 million students nationwide identified as English language learners, the fastest-growing demographic in schools – and the lowest-performing, as judged by achievement tests and graduation rates.
Sixty-seven percent of students with limited English skills graduated high school after four years in 2016, compared with 84% of all students, according to federal data.
Language experts recommend how to improve those outcomes: More high-quality, long-term dual-language programs can close the achievement gap in literacy between English learners and native English speakers after five to six years, according to research.
The programs can be tough to implement. Hurdles include a debate over the best way to teach English learners, public hostility against those who speak a native language other than English, shortages of bilingual teachers and even the fact that dual-language programs often grow fastest in areas where upper-income parents ask for them. That’s good for children who participate, but it worries advocates who want to see language-minority students have equal access.
Pressure is mounting in states where numbers of Latino English learners have surged. Mississippi, South Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas and Maryland have seen the number of English learners more than double from 2005 to 2015, according to federal data.
“If we can make children feel more whole and more ready and more accepted and welcomed and validate their prior knowledge and prior learning experiences, then we’ve gone a long way to making them ready to learn over the course of a lifetime,” says Tara Fortune, immersion program director at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition.
What’s the best way to teach language skills to students?
From 2000 to 2015, the percentage of Latino students enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools swelled from 16% to 26%. The percentage of white students fell from 61% to 49%, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Federal law requires districts to identify students with limited English skills and to serve them with an equitable, research-based program. Practices vary widely between states and districts.
Some schools use transitional bilingual programs, which teach academics such as science, math and social studies in Spanish for a few years before transitioning students to mainstream classes.
Many use English as a Second Language instruction, a set of methods and techniques originally developed to teach English to foreign diplomats and university students. Instruction happens in English, and teachers have to be certified.
Then there are “English-only” models, which call for separating language-minority children and having them learn all subjects only in English.
“It’s very political because the public doesn’t really understand the process of second language acquisition,” says Maria Coady, an associate professor of bilingual education at the University of Florida, a state where almost 300,000 students are learning English.
“But the research is really clear on what works,” she says. “Students learning English benefit from high-quality, long-term bilingual instruction programs.”
Nationwide, there were about 3,000 dual-language programs as of 2015, says Santiago Wood, executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education. That’s a big increase over about 300 operating around 2001, he says, but not enough to help the surging numbers of English learners.
In some districts, the popularity of dual-language programs has led to concerns that English learners, who often come from lower-income families, will be pushed out by native English speakers from more affluent families.
Oyster’s program was created to serve the Latino population, but gentrification over the past 40 years drove low-income families from the neighborhood, says Vanessa Bertelli, co-founder of a grassroots organization that advocates for more dual-language programs.
“There are more than 10,000 students learning English in D.C., and even if every one of those students enrolled in a dual-immersion school, there wouldn’t be enough seats for them,” says Bertelli of the DC Language Immersion Project.
“There’s a lot of energy wasted on trying to allocate the pie, when what we should be doing is making more pies,” she says.
Learning ‘English by osmosis’ does not work for most students
The USA has a complicated history when it comes to Spanish in public schools.
The country does not have an official language, but for many decades, some states made English the law of their land by embracing practices that restricted or punished children for speaking a language other than English in schools.
“The idea was time on task: put ’em in there, and they’ll learn English by osmosis,” Coady says. “Sometimes that works for very young kids. But for a 10th grader coming into high school only speaking Mandarin who needs to graduate in three years? There’s no way that child has equitable access.”
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a focus on English-only instruction became more pronounced as a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment led to ballot initiatives in several states that effectively outlawed teaching in multiple languages.
California voters approved a ban on bilingual education in public schools in 1998. Known as Proposition 227, the policy barred many children of Latino immigrants and Latino immigrant children from bilingual education, says Ramon Martinez, an assistant professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education in California.
Led by California businessman Ron Unz and supported by the lobbying group ProEnglish, which favors English-only classes and the adoption of English as the official language of state and national government, similar restrictive bans passed in Arizona and Massachusetts.
Ramirez, the Gates Early Learning preschool teacher, was a student in East Los Angeles during the ban in California. She was taught in Spanish and English through second grade before Proposition 227 went into effect when she was about 8. After that, she struggled.
“I remember my third grade, I just kind of shut down because I had an idea and comprehended English, but I didn’t feel confident to speak it,” Ramirez says, holding back tears. “Now coming back and working where I grew up, I feel like many years ago I was where my kids are now. I want to make sure they don’t go through the lack of confidence I faced because of the language.”
California voters repealed the state’s ban on bilingual education in 2016. Massachusetts overturned its English-only instruction law in 2017. Arizona officials, many of whom fought fervently for years to keep Spanish instruction out of public schools, are watering down its law, in part because outcomes for English learners there have been dismal.
At last count by the federal Department of Education, Arizona had the lowest graduation rate for English learners of all states: In 2016, only 32% of them graduated in four years.
“Our English language learner population was performing worse on tests than our special education population,” says Republican state Sen. Paul Boyer, a part-time teacher who supported efforts to change the law to help students learning English.
English learners make progress
The city of Vineland, New Jersey, about an hour south of Philadelphia, represents changing U.S. demographics. More than 60% of the 11,000 students in Vineland Public Schools are Latino, reflecting a long-standing Puerto Rican community and a swell of migrants from Central America in recent years. Many of those new arrivals are teens who came without their parents and have no recent history of attending school.
Some of the school’s parents work in the surrounding eggplant and cauliflower fields during the day. Some are highly transient, migrating with the seasons wherever the work is.
Like many districts in New Jersey, Vineland hosts a transitional bilingual program for students who arrive with limited English skills. This year, about 800 students are enrolled. They learn their core academics in Spanish – often right next door to classes where the same content is taught in English – but they have time built into the day for speaking, reading and writing in English.
During the first week of school this fall at Vineland High School, students in a 10th grade bilingual algebra class solved problems written on the board while their teacher wandered around, greeting students and checking their homework.
“Did you finish them all, Rafael?” she asked one student in English.
She turned and saw that another had neglected to carry a negative number through an equation. She tapped the student’s answer: “Y un negativo, no?” she said.
Vineland’s bilingual program has been bolstered by JoAnne Negrin, supervisor of bilingual education. Since she was hired seven years ago, she made sure that all new textbook purchases were available in both Spanish and English, so students in the bilingual program could learn at the same pace as their English-speaking peers.
She made sure bilingual teachers in the lower grades weren’t delivering the same lessons in both languages over the course of the day.
“If you’re repeating lessons every day, you’re never going to help these children make progress,” Negrin says.
Vineland’s English learners show some of the highest academic improvement scores in the district, she says. Last year, the students met all the targets outlined on the state report cards.
“People sometimes question, ‘How are students going to learn English if they spend the whole day learning in Spanish?’ ” Negrin says. “Well, our data shows that proficiency in literacy in the child’s first language is a very good indicator of how well that child is going to eventually learn English.”
Other small victories are happening. Kevin Sanchez, 17, who arrived from the Dominican Republic last year with limited English, won first place in a regional science fair after investigating how windmills worked and building a model of one.
Sanchez almost backed out from the fair when he learned that participants were required to make an oral presentation to the judges. Encouraged by his bilingual science teacher, Sanchez enlisted a friend to translate for him.
“It felt really good that a student like me could win in a fair like that,” Sanchez says in Spanish.
Negrin, who grew up as a bilingual child abroad, translates for him.
“So often people look at bilingual programs as remedial programs,” she says as Sanchez returns to his English as a Second Language class. “But here you have a kid winning a science fair. There’s nothing remedial about that.”
Bilingual teachers in short supply, high demand
Another major barrier to starting or expanding dual-language programs is the critical shortage nationwide of teachers who can speak and teach in Spanish and English.
More than 30 states reported critical shortages in English as a Second Language teachers and world language teachers.
As a result, more districts groom their bilingual teachers, either by helping staff achieve the necessary certifications or by encouraging former bilingual students to come back and teach.
In Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, close to the U.S.-Mexican border, one district and a nearby university tried to bolster the pipeline of bilingual students becoming bilingual educators.
The Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District serves a nearly all-Latino population of 32,000 students. The district has long supported a dual-language, Spanish-English program in all its elementary schools, which has helped close the gap in the early grades for those who are learning English. Students can choose to continue in the bilingual program in high school.
The university added a minor in bilingual secondary education, says Janine Schall, chair of the bilingual and literacy studies department.
“Most of our students come from the local community and plan to return to teach in local K-12 schools after graduation,” Schall said.
The university can’t expand fast enough, she says. Would-be bilingual teachers often face challenges such as the cost of their education and the tests they have to take to become certified in bilingual education.
“We know that there’s a greater need for bilingual education teachers than we can meet right now,” Schall says.
Dual-language programs grow in Los Angeles
About 15,000 students were enrolled in the Los Angeles public schools’ Spanish/English dual-language programs last year. About two-thirds of those students came from Spanish-speaking households, the others were native English speakers, according to district data.
Elena Perez, a bilingual preschool teacher there, says immersing Spanish-speaking children in their native language empowers them and helps them excel past their regular education peers academically, socially and emotionally.
Her classroom features a gigantic world map, and strings and pins link students to the countries from which their families immigrated, such as Guatemala, Mexico and Peru. One morning, the class sang and swayed to the Spanish folk song “De colores.”
Outside learning spaces designed to instill cultural pride, Latino students face a world full of structural barriers and racial inequalities, language experts say. They want lawmakers to pay attention to the research and make policy changes that better position English learners to succeed.
“People talk about closing the achievement gap, but it’s more closing the opportunity gap,” Perez says. “It’s important that we come back to the original purpose of dual language, which is to serve the marginalized population.”