Education Opinion

Dual Language Education for Equity & Economic Development

By Tom Vander Ark — July 18, 2016 7 min read
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After years of a “test-prep” curriculum and failed attempts at educating English Language Learners (ELLs) with a transitional bilingual education model, the El Paso Independent School District (EPISD) has shifted to an Active Learning framework: technology enhanced project-based learning that aims to engage and inspire every student every day.

EPISD also transitioned its bilingual education program from a traditional exit program (i.e., exit to English only) to one-way and two-way dual language instructional models. While the goal of a transitional program is to create a bridge to eventually move students from their native language to English, the dual language model seeks to maintain academic and linguistic fluency in two or more languages.

Superintendent Juan Cabrera (@jecabrera12) states that the dual language program will not only improve academic outcomes for both ELLs and monolingual English speakers in a two-way model, but he also believes promoting multilingualism is an economic driver and important shift that all districts should consider.

“This is a win-win for all our students as our two-way dual language will allow our students to collaborate and learn together while also dramatically improving the opportunity for success for one of our historically most vulnerable and least successful sub-groups, our ELLs,” said Cabrera.

“As an English language learner who was able to maintain my native language (Spanish) and also learn English and later other languages, I am a strong believer in bilingual and multilingual instruction,” added Cabrera. “My ability to maintain two languages afforded me the opportunity to live and work internationally; this was a luxury, but in the ever-changing global economy it will become a necessity and dual language and/or multi-language instruction should be implemented to help our students obtain a competitive advantage in the global marketplace.”

Mesita Dual Language Program

The Connecting Worlds/Mundos Unidos curriculum is delivered through the integration of dual language immersion methodology and gifted and talented instructional strategies. The program uses a 50/50 design in which students receive half of their instruction in Spanish and half in English in all subject areas. Instruction in both languages is delivered by the same classroom teacher. Noted UTEP linguist Dr. Elena Izquierdo inspired the Connecting Worlds approach.

The Vilas campus (pictured below) serves as an Early Childhood Development Center (serving grades P-1) and shares instructional strategies and the unique Mesita culture where teachers collaborate and compete to improve.

Laila Ferris has been principal at Mesita for 20 years. “We believe it’s the only program that should be implemented to support EL,” said Ferris. “Why not allow for growth of two languages instead of English only? We use the gift of the first language and help them grow into a second language.”

Ferris has assembled a talented and passionate staff of educators. At least 85% served as student teachers at Mesita.

They value their dual language program and the teacher development role they play through a partnership with UTEP which supports 250 pre-service teachers.

Preservice teachers “receive training and work side by side with great teachers and learn what is critical in good teaching and successful learning so we keep them,” said Ferris. “The idea was that we would build a pool of great teachers--this has proven true!”

Does it work for Spanish learners? Ferris says, “Absolutely!” She thinks two way dual language is optimal where English speakers learn Spanish and Spanish speakers learn English while serving as language models for each other.

Even in one way dual language (i.e., English learners only), explains Cabrera, the goal should not be English only. “Nothing in last 25 years tells us we’ve been successful exiting kids from traditional programs,” added Cabrera who started his career as an ELL teacher in California.”

Cabrera credits his parents (both teachers) for the insight to create a dual language home. Cabrera worked around the world and found his ability to quickly learn new languages a huge asset.

He finds it unfortunate that many immigrant parents want to quickly abandon Spanish, “We often have to visit families to let them know how important dual language is,” added Cabrera, who worked as an attorney and software executive in Europe and Latin America. “In my international work, people saw multilingualism as an asset and we need that mindset in the U.S. if we are going to stay globally competitive,” said Cabrera.

Leadership is Key

In September there will be almost 12,000 students in the opt-in dual language programs at EPISD. Dual language learning is not just a family option in El Paso, it’s an economic advantage. With almost three million people the combined international metropolitan area, the El Paso-Juarez metropolitan area is home to the largest bilingual-binational workforce in the Americas, perhaps the world. In the Sun City, dual language fluency provides a dramatic advantage in daily commerce and civic participation.

The EPISD trustees and the El Paso community fully support the expansion of dual-language education as demonstrated by the Trustees approving a strategic plan which specifically calls out “effective bilingual communicators” as a student learning goal. EPISD is one of the few large urban schools in the country to take this approach (student learning goals from the strategic plan are summarized above). Additionally, the trustees support the integration of technology and developing critical thinkers and problem solvers through active learning environments (which includes the opening of eight New Tech Network schools over the next three years).

“The vision, belief and support of district leadership has been key,” said Ferris.

Cabrera (left with board chair Dori Fenenbock at the Mesita-Vilas campus) sees dual language as an economic development driver as well as an equity issue. “Dual language will help all of our children regardless of race, ethnicity or economic status. Our legislators and policy makers need to understand that multilingualism is about creating a competitive advantage for all of our kids, not just about educating our English language learners,” said Cabrera.

In addition to serving as a collaborative training site for other EPISD teachers, Cabrera plans to replicate the Mesita-Vilas language school and create an innovation network of schools (like Beacon Schools in Denver) to help other struggling elementary schools implement the Mesita dual language program. Cabrera’s long term plan is to create opportunities for other districts to learn from and share in the success at Mesita.

The National Picture

Almost five million students across the U.S. were English Language Learners in the 2013-2014 school year--nearly 10 percent of the overall student population. By 2030, 40 percent of all elementary and secondary students could be “language minority students.”

With the 2015 passage of ESSA, the federal government has made teaching ELLs a priority through stronger accountability provisions and the authorization of additional funding. Secretary of Education John King said, “States have the opportunity to invest in ensuring that all new teachers are ready to work in the diverse settings that characterize our schools, and to see the fact that a child speaks a language other than English at home as an asset rather than as a deficit.”

ELLs are less likely to graduate (63% compared to 82% in 4 years) but there is evidence that given the right supports, bilingual and multilingual students perform better academically over time. Studies show within four to five years bilingual students typically outperform their peers that are in peers that are in one language classrooms.

This Getting Smart podcast featured two Washington state school districts who have innovative plans for supporting English Language Learners and also touches on the importance of getting families, communities and policy makers on board to support dual language education.

There is research to support the strengthening of native language while also learning a new language. The bilingual and biliterate movement is growing, for learners as early as pre-kindergarten all the way to graduating from high school. There is an important role that parents, community members, businesses and policymakers can play in understanding the importance of bilingual education.

A recent report highlights promising tools and strategies for supporting English learners. It recommends that the growing commitment to dual language fluency requires increased investment in language tools and content.

“Dual language immersion programs support both native Spanish speakers and native English speakers in becoming bilingual, bicultural and biliterate,” according to VIF International Education, who helped launch Houston ISD dual language. “By learning core content through Spanish language and culture, Spanish-speaking students learn to appreciate their own heritages and English-speaking students acquire access to another language and culture.”

VIF work in Selma, North Carolina, suggests that “administrative support, meaningful student and teacher experiences and parent engagement. Effective communication between administrators, staff and parents can lead to greater understanding and support for students and their diverse needs; the integration of these factors fosters an environment that promotes academic success for all students.”

The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.