More US schools teach in English and Spanish, but not enough to help Latino kids
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.
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.