Daphane Womack does not speak Spanish fluently, but her children do. Every day, Gloria (8) and Gabriel (5) attend school at Tyler ES (1001 G St. SE, soon to be renamed Shirley Chisholm Elementary). They have been at Tyler since 2018, when Gloria entered prek3.
Womack said the family chose Tyler because it was their neighborhood school, but also because it offered a bilingual program. She and her husband have put in the effort to help their children succeed.
“I want them to know that if we don’t know, we’re going to look it up, find the answer, and that we’re learning together,” Womack said.
When Gloria started the bilingual program five years ago at Tyler, it was a “strand” program—a cohort of bilingual students in an English-dominant school. But starting in 2023-24, the school will begin its transition to a whole school Bilingual-Arts program.
“My sense is that now there is more openness and excitement about the bilingual arts program,” Tyler Principal Jasmine Brann says, “but I will also say that people want to see that it is going to work. It is kind of like, “Show me. Prove to us that it is going to be successful for all kids.”
The proof is out there. Experts say that bilingual education improves executive function, increases academic achievement, and increases mental flexibility. The American Councils for International Education (ACIE) says that recent evidence points to a renewed interest in dual language immersion.
But some parents are concerned that learning in a new language will affect their child’s academic performance. They worry that their children will be overwhelmed by immersion. They wonder if a second language will impact fluency in English, or if academic performance will suffer. And many wonder, how will they, the parents, understand what is going on?
Public Access in the District
Many District residents have access to free dual-language (DL) education. 22 of the District’s public or public charter schools offer dual-language or immersion programs. According to Elizabeth Ross, Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning, those schools serve about 9,000 students, or about ten percent of the public school population. 17 are elementary schools; 10 of those are public charters.
That may seem like a small portion of students served overall, but those numbers are expected to grow rapidly. Enrollment in dual language programs nearly doubled between the 2015-16 and 2019-2020 school years. OSSE estimates that 4,600 more students will enroll in DL programs by the 2024-25 school year, so a 600-seat expansion is planned for DL programs.
The programs are concentrated near where they originated in the 1970s, when DC organized the first language programming as a tool to help native Hispanic speakers newly-arrived in neighborhoods like Adams Morgan and Mount Pleasant.
That history has resulted in a concentration of schools offering DL programming in the District’s traditionally Hispanic neighborhoods, in near Northwest in Wards 1, 4 and 5. But in the past twenty years, interest in language learning has grown throughout the District, especially among White native English-speakers.
The goals of dual language learning are to develop literacy in more than one language, proficiency in academic subjects, and cross-cultural awareness. Multiculturalism and multilingualism are the ideal starting points for a DL school community, according to Berenice Pernalete, Director of Innovation for Mundo Verde’s Instituto, a professional development program open to any teacher interested in developing DL program teaching skills.
Pernalete said the ideal for bilingual schools is to have an even number English learners (ELs) and learners of the other language integrated in the school. That way, students help one another improve skills in a first language as well as in learning a second language.
There are generally three types of language learning programs: immersion, bilingual and strand programs. Immersion is 90 percent learning in a target language, while bilingual is a 50-50 split between learning in the target and native language. Strand programs are DL programs offered to a select cohort in a school offering more traditional programming to other students.
Most District DL programs begin with immersion in the preschool years. Students transition to bilingual learning in both English and a target language, usually in grade 1 or 2.
That system is in place at Mundo Verde Public Charter School, which offers DL Spanish to students from PreK3 to Grade 5 at two campuses. “Younger kids just learn second languages a lot quicker,” said Interim Chief School Officer Joseph Rodriguez. “By immersing the student in that first language, it allows them to transpose those languages.”
Starting in grade 1, a cohort of students switches languages daily, one day learning in Spanish, the next in English. Different teachers teach in each language, but teach the same subjects, continuing lessons in math or language arts from the day prior. By grade 5, students rotate through three different teachers and with them, languages, throughout their day, moving as a cohort from room to room.
Learning A Language “Magic” When Young
Many parents are nervous about their three and four-year olds beginning school in a whole new language environment, acknowledges Washington Yu Ying Early Years Coordinator Fellow Aini Fang. Washington Yu Ying (220 Taylor St NE) is a public charter school offering a whole school bilingual program in Mandarin Chinese to students in PreK through grade 5.
Like Mundo Verde, PreK classes at Yu Ying are full immersion. But their transition to 50-50 bilingual is more gradual. Students in Kindergarten and grade 1 are learning 75 percent in Chinese; only in grade 2 do they move to a 50-50 alternating day model.
Most Yu Ying students do not speak Chinese at home, Fang said. Parents are often worried that being spoken to all day in Mandarin will be a shock for their children. “The first few days can be challenging for little kids,” Fang acknowledged.
Fang said teachers have immersion strategies to help pre-K students feel safe and comfortable in the classroom. They use visual cues to help children understand what is happening, focusing on social emotional learning, speaking, and listening. Chinese characters are introduced early in fun ways. Children form them in yarn or playdoh and act out the motion depicted.
While in the beginning, students may not be clear on how to ask to go to the bathroom, within a few months, students begin to understand instruction in Chinese and later in the year, begin responding in kind. As with the other public preschool programs, students are assessed at three-month intervals. Small group intervention is built into the class structure, but also into afterschool programming.
It does not take much time for children to pick up a new language, said Fang —PreK-3 language learning “is like magic”.
According to the American Councils for International Education, DL has cognitive advantages, leading to better executive functioning and several other skills that help kids become better learners. A 2016 study of DL programs in Utah found that fourth grade DL students outperformed their non-DLI peers in math achievement. In DC, a 2020 OSSE study found that 14 percent more DL students scored 4 or higher on standardized English Language Arts (ELA) tests than students who had never been in DL programs; 10 percent more DL students scored 4 or higher on PARCC math.
While many parents are concerned about their child’s ability to learn subjects in addition to a new language, research indicates that students in DL programs have higher levels of academic achievement, especially in language arts. “That is why bilingual education is so effective,” Pernalete said. “It is by far the best way to support language learners, regardless of their first language.”
Even monolingual parents are key partners in learning a target language. Tyler PreK DL teacher Oneiz Mercado said that teachers communicate what is being discussed in the classroom parents are encouraged to discuss topics at home to strengthen knowledge in their home language. Those concepts then become a bridge to the target language.
Language learning always works both ways, adds Noelia Gomez-Alvarez, the Spanish Language Arts (SLA) teacher for Tyler’s upper grades. “When we see a student running behind in Spanish, usually they are running behind in English.” In that case, SLA teachers do not focus on Spanish, but on language skills, working with the ELA teacher to do biliteracy work to bridge the gap.
Another benefit to DL programs is cultural competence. At Tyler, Gloria came to understand Dios de Muertos as different from Halloween, which led to good discussions of how other cultures celebrate death. Her familiarity with the language has led to probing questions, Womack said, such as asking in which countries people speak Spanish, and why it is the language for so many people working in construction.
Conversely, children coming from households that speak the target language at home do not see themselves as outliers, because there are students who have come to the school to learn it. That makes a Spanish speaker a leader in the classroom, said Insituto’s Pernalete.
“It’s not that we teach more, or that we do more; it’s how we do it that makes a difference,” she said. “Because you are sort of lifting the minoritized languages of the community to make sure that everyone is learning through them, so the language becomes an asset.”
When Is It Too Late to Start?
Rodriguez, who completed a PhD thesis on language education, says that it is easiest to learn a new language in the preschool and elementary years. Experts say that ability gradually diminishes as students enter puberty. Those who do get into a DCPS DL program in grade two and higher must take a test to demonstrate they can function in the program.
But few children enter DL programs at the District’s public and public charter schools, because of the length of the wait list. For instance, about 650 students are on the waitlist for Yu Ying this upcoming year, so many that they are planning to build an “extension” campus near the current site.
At Mundo Verde, Rodriguez said it is never too late to start learning another language. He himself came to the United States in grade 2 and he says with sufficient supports, students can learn another language even if they begin in the later elementary years.
But many dual language programs hesitate to take new students from grade 2 and up. “We find that, from a system standpoint, it is very difficult to catch a student up if they are five years behind in Mandarin at Yu Ying,” Fang said. The school has support and intervention but wants to ensure the experience is positive, she said. After second grade it is hard to do that at the systemic level. For the one or two students accepted in kindergarten or grade 1 each year, the school provides extra support, such as Friday homework groups.
But families do need to recognize that it can take between five and ten years to become fluent, so a dedication to learning a different language is for the long haul.
“Participation in a bilingual program is beautiful, but it is also a commitment, so we ask families to understand that as they get started in the process,” said Tyler’s Brann. Families that begin in PreK3 could be part of the same school community for 7 years and should be prepared to embrace the journey to learn culture and language, she noted –with both the challenges as well as joys.
Womack and her two children are at Tyler for the long haul, not just for the entire seven years they will each be at the school, but for a lifetime of commitment to the language. “In a global economy, the ability to engage with others in Spanish will be an asset in communication throughout their lives,” she said, “fostering a lifelong love of learning in both of them.”