The Latino Gap: Dual Language Programs Offer Hope
The hilltop playground at Los Altos Elementary School has an enviable panoramic view. To the south, you can see over the border fence that separates Mexico from the U.S. to the neighborhoods of Tijuana.
In the other direction, you can just make out the skyscrapers of downtown San Diego.
Many of the kids at Los Altos are familiar with both of these worlds, and some will grow up fully fluent in the languages of both. This year, Los Altos helped them by starting a dual language immersion program.
About 90 kindergarten and 1st grade students spend half their day learning in Spanish, and the other half in English.
Bilingual education isn't exactly a radical concept. But dual language immersion programs are distinctive. In these programs, students generally take classes in two languages throughout their grade school years, and sometimes into junior high and high school.
The aim is to strengthen the first language, while teaching a second.
Other California public school programs aimed at English Language Learners have a different goal — to get students into English as quickly as possible.
An estimated one in five children in the U.S. speaks a language other than English at home. In most cases, that language is Spanish. And yet the vast majority of these children are taught only in English at school.
Some educators believe this is part of the reason Latino children are lagging in school compared to their white and Asian peers.
In California, some transitional bilingual programs exist. But children in these programs are generally moved into an all-English classroom as soon as they're deemed ready.
"So (they are) really never allowing children to fully develop their primary language," said Cristina Alfaro, a dual language literacy professor at San Diego State University. "And then they are pretty much just put into English and it’s back to sink or swim.”
Many students sink.
Just 46 percent of English learners in San Diego County passed the English portion of the California High School Exit Exam last year, according to the California Department of Education. Just 62 percent passed the math test. Students must pass the tests to graduate from high school.
In San Diego, 78 percent of Latino students passed the English portion of the test, while 81 percent passed the math portion.
These scores are lower than all other ethnic groups, except for African Americans and American Indians.
But recent research shows students in dual language immersion programs tend to thrive, often surpassing the test scores of their peers by the end of primary school.
Some California educators think these programs can help bridge the Latino education gap. Plus, they say, the world has changed since California voters decided to virtually eliminate bilingual education in 1998.
“You have to look at, ultimately, what do we want these children to be?” Alfaro, the professor, said. “Do we want them to be able to compete in a global market? Yes. Then it makes sense to maintain their language.”
Thanks to positive results, dual language immersion programs are catching on. California schools have added around 100 such programs in the last five years. Some 50,000 public school students are enrolled.
Most programs teach Spanish alongside English, but some programs offer Mandarin, Korean and German.
Parents at Los Altos are thrilled. Sofía Díaz has two children in the dual language immersion program.
Díaz says her daughter, Ana Sofía, loves the program. She can switch between English and Spanish fluently and with good pronunciation in both languages, without any "umms" or "ahhs."
English-speaking parents, like Maria Elena Blankenship, also love the program. Blankenship speaks English at home with her husband. But her mother, who also lives with the family, speaks only Spanish. Blankenship is worried her daughter was losing her Spanish before she enrolled in the dual language immersion program.
“It’s been wonderful," she said, adding that her daughter has become much more confident in speaking Spanish. "And to be able to write it is…phenomenal.”
Many dual language immersion programs are located in wealthy neighborhoods, where highly educated and involved parents demand such programs. But Los Altos serves a lower-middle class, largely Spanish-speaking community. That’s where parent education comes in.
At a recent Latino education summit in San Diego, Alfaro ran through an exercise with dozens of parents. They discussed the positive and negative aspects of different educational models for English learners.
"If they don’t have the right information, they don’t know what to ask for,” Alfaro said.
Despite their increasing popularity and apparent success, just 2 percent of English learners are enrolled in dual language immersion programs in California. State law makes it difficult for English learners to receive instruction in their native language.
And because dual language immersion students often score lower on tests during their early years, some schools are wary of implementing such programs. The reason? They are under federal pressure to continually improve their test scores.