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How Dual Language Learning Could Help Curb Education Inequality

Virginia Alvino
Texas Public Radio News

More than 17 percent of Texas’ public school students learned a language other than English first. There are a number of approaches to teaching these English language learners  - many researchers consider dual language learning to be one of the most effective. They say it allows students to learn English while simultaneously helping them advance literacy in their native language.

Texas Public Radio’s Virginia Alvino reports on the benefits and limitations of dual language learning, and why some educators see it as an issue of social justice.

At Passmore Elementary it’s time for a reading lesson in Rosa Jonasz’2nd- grade class. 

Some of her students are native English speakers. Most are native Spanish speakers. This is a dual language class. The goal is to help all the students become bi-lingual and bi-literate, by learning from the teacher, and each other.

“Like today it will be Spanish reading, tomorrow it will be English reading," says Jonasz. "So we just continue, so if they didn’t catch it today they will catch it tomorrow, so that’s why we try to make the connections between the two days.”

They also use that pattern with math, and science. It’s not just learning both languages. It’s learning how to learn in both languages.

Many researchers agree – dual language programs are effective. Among them is Howard Smith, professor of bilingual studies at UTSA.

He says language education is a highly political issue - that many educated folks have always seen bilingualism as a sign of being well bred. So while public dual language programs are growing nationwide, Smith says that’s largely at the request of white, middle class families. The plus side is Hispanic students can benefit.

"Here in Texas we have some problems but we are recognizing the rights of children to have access to education," says Smith, "and the bilingual programs and dual language programs in specific are helping that to be achieved.” 

While school districts are federally required to provide an option for English learners, they aren’t told which one. The advantage of dual language is that unlike other models, it also cultivates Spanish skills.

“And so when we see so many low economic families being denied bilingualism with the excuse that you have to learn English, English only, etcetera," says Smith. "But then you have these same students who are told forget Spanish, they reach high school, and the high school counselor says you know if you want to  get into college you have to have three years of a foreign language. Then you have kids named Gonzalez and Suarez who fail Spanish 1 in high school, because they are successful products of the system.”

That’s why Smith says there should be more dual language programs, and they should continue through High School - which only one San Antonio district does. But he says there’s a lack of infrastructure – for programs to grow, every district would need way more bilingual teachers, and language materials.

Noelia Benson is Northside ISD’s Director of Bingual Education. She says  "we don’t have enough ELL’s for the dual language to grow it and have it across the district.” 

Benson says NISD is majority Hisanic, but only 7 percent are English language learners. So, the district can’t meet the demand for the program - demand which she says, is coming from English speaking families.   For now  the district is still seeing the win-win benefit of this approach.

"Our dual language students usually outperform our mainstream English only,” says Benson.

Last year at Passmore  78 percent of fourth graders met state writing standards, while 100 percent of dual language ELL’s met the same standard.

In Passmore’s fifth grade dual language class, it’s hard to figure out which students are ELL’s while everyone’s speaking English. Anahi Reyes says she hardly spoke any English when she started. "Since pre-K I've been in dual language," she says.

As far as the Spanish language learners they aren’t fully carrying on conversations with each other in both languages, but they’re following along. At least in this class, a lot of the students seem to get that they’re lucky to be in the program. Plus, 5th grader Anahi Reyes says “people that know two languages get paid more.”

That's a favorite fact of many of the students who do get the opportunity to participate in dual language learning.

Virginia joined Texas Public Radio in September, 2015. Prior to hosting and producing Fronteras for TPR, she worked at WBOI in Indiana to report on often overlooked stories in the community. Virginia began her reporting career at the Statehouse in Salem, OR, and has reported for the Northwest News Network and Oregon Public Broadcasting.