The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

Dual-language learning
At Public School 73 in the Bronx, third-grade dual-language teacher Frances Marte helps student Arlette Espallat sound out words in English. Credit: Margaret Ramirez

At Public School 73 in the South Bronx, 8-year-old Arlette Espallat is reading aloud in Spanish about animals found in “el bosque” or, the forest. Her voice rises as she brings the faraway images to the noisy classroom.

Later in the week, Arlette and her classmates will read in English about the life of Olympic medalist Wilma Rudolph.

But, ask the chatty third-grader which language she likes best and she gives a thoughtful answer.

“I like Spanish better. That’s because I know if I learn my own language, then I will be better in reading and writing English,” she said.

Several educators agree with Arlette’s reasoning. In New York City and other parts of the nation, dual-language schools and education programs are on the rise as a way to better prepare students for jobs in a globalized economy. The programs provide instruction in two languages in order to help students develop proficiency in both.

In December, the New York City Education Department announced plans to create or expand 40 dual-language programs for elementary, middle and high school levels in Mandarin, French, Haitian Creole, Hebrew, Japanese, and Spanish.

Related: Can the Common Core raise graduation rate for English learners?

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña picked P.S. 73 and 14 other schools with existing dual-language programs to receive $10,000 for multilingual instructional materials and ongoing professional development for the 2015-16 school year. These “Model Dual Language Schools” will host visits from other school leaders and staff to share best practices and strengthen the programs.

“I think learning another language is good. Samantha is already speaking and writing in Spanish. My brother is in college now and he tells me that if you know another language, you can get a better job.”

“When principals and teachers share effective strategies, it’s the students who benefit,” said Fariña. “Dual Language programs offer academic rigor for students and the opportunity to maintain their native language while learning a new one and learning about diverse cultures. These 15 schools are leaders in Dual Language education and, through collaborative practices, we can ensure a supportive, high-quality multilingual experience for even more students.”

P.S. 73 principal Vivian Bueno said the model designation is a testament to the hard work of teachers and support of the parents who assisted in the recent expansion of the school’s Spanish dual-language program. But the 850-student school, which is located in one of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods, still faces challenges, including low standardized test scores; adapting the Common Core standards for the dual-language class; accommodating immigrant students who speak French and Bengali; helping students with few educational resources at home; and supporting dozens of students who live in homeless shelters.

“Being named a model school doesn’t mean that we’re perfect,” Bueno said. “We are still a struggling school. But we do have all the elements in place to make a dual-language program successful.”

Across the U.S., the number of dual-language programs has soared from about 260 in 2000 to more than 2,000 in 2011, including more than 300 in the state of New York alone, according to the National Association for Bilingual Education. The rise stems from a need for more bilingual people in the workforce and some research that shows dual-language programs also benefit English-speaking students. A 2013 Michigan State University study found Texas elementary school English speakers who were enrolled in schools with bilingual education programs performed better on state math and reading tests than English-speaking students at schools without those programs.

Those benefits have tempered the English-only movement of the late 1990s that led to controversial ballot initiatives in California and several other states. With more interest from middle and upper income parents who want their children to be bilingual, dual-language programs are poised for more growth.

While dual-language programs all aim for proficiency in two languages, the programs vary depending on models selected by the teacher or school. Some programs teach in English one day and the second language the next day, while others alternate the language by subject. Unlike transitional bilingual education where teachers develop proficiency by gradually reducing the use of the native language, dual language advances reading, writing, and speaking in both languages.

Related: Theater helps English learners master Common Core: But can it close the achievement gap?

Dual-language learning
Public School 73 dual-language teacher Frances Marte said the incomes of her students’ families impact their learning. “A lot of them don’t have any books at home. So we lend them books. I allow them to take home whatever books they want to read. And I buy them books. I see them reading books, and I just buy them,” she said. Credit: Margaret Ramirez

Despite the increase of dual-language programs for English learners, statewide assessments show that a wide achievement gap continues to persist with English language learners lagging behind their English-speaking peers, according to the New York State Education Department.

In New York City, 30 percent of students achieved proficiency in last year’s ELA exam. In contrast, only 4 percent of English language learners in New York City passed the ELA exam. At P.S. 73, only 7 percent of all students reached proficiency in ELA, with just over 2 percent of English language learners at the school passing the exam.

Reflecting on the scores, Principal Bueno remains undeterred and says they are seeing progress as the school expands and improves its dual-language program which now begins in preschool and runs to fifth grade.

Under previous leadership at P.S. 73, the school only had a small French and Spanish dual-language program in kindergarten and first grade. The school’s growing population of Spanish-speaking students received transitional bilingual education or ESL class, placing additional burden on teachers and often resulting in insufficient attention to new immigrant students.

When Bueno arrived in 2012, she expanded the program by adding dual-language instruction in preschool and expanding it in kindergarten and first grades. Every year, she added a dual-language classroom to a new grade level, eventually extending from preschool up to fifth grade. Each grade level also retains traditional English-speaking classrooms.

Related: For teachers of English learners, Common Core means double the work

In lower grades, from preschool to second grade, dual-language classrooms have an English and a Spanish teacher who teach side-by-side. In upper grades, from third to fifth grade, the dual-language classroom has one teacher that teaches in English and Spanish, switching the language daily. Students are alerted to the language of the day by a sign tacked to the door: “Today we are speaking in English.”

When asked how the school had adapted to the Common Core standards, Bueno said a big challenge has been finding materials to support dual-language instruction. However, she believes Common Core will help raise academic standards and bring educational equity to English language learners.

“I’m very big on equity,” she said. “I purposely go into the English classrooms and then the dual-language classrooms because I want to see how they’re in sync. They have to mirror each other in what they are learning.”

“For me, this is a team effort. This is not about an English-only movement or Spanish-only movement. This is about, how are we preparing our students for college and careers?” she said.

Even with the rise in popularity of dual-language programs, education experts say there is still not enough research to confirm that dual has an advantage over other bilingual programs.

“We don’t have much good research on the effects of dual language programs – and none that I know of that compares the effects of such programs among different types of communities or schools. So I don’t have any insight on the impact in places like the south Bronx relative to other communities,” said Sean F. Reardon, professor of poverty and inequality in education at Stanford University. “In some research…it appears that English learners learn English and gain academic skills better in the long run in any kind of two-language program (dual-language or bilingual) than in English-only programs.”

Related: These schools graduate English learners at a rate nearly 75 percent higher than other schools. What are they doing right?

Even so, more parents of English speakers are enrolling their children in dual-language programs in hopes of giving them an edge on competition for jobs. Carol Joseph, whose three children attend P.S. 73 and speak English fluently, decided to place her 7-year-old daughter Samantha in the Spanish dual-language class.

“I think learning another language is good. Samantha is already speaking and writing in Spanish,” said Joseph, who immigrated to the Bronx from Antigua. “My brother is in college now and he tells me that if you know another language, you can get a better job.”

In the rough streets of the South Bronx where a littered cobblestone 119-step stairway provides the path to school, scores of black and Latino immigrant families struggle daily for food and shelter, but hold fast to the possibility of a better future for their children.

Third-grade dual language teacher Frances Marte, who has taught at P.S. 73 for 20 years, said the economic hardship faced by students presents additional challenges in the classroom.

“Our students are affected in a different way,” Marte said. “A lot of them don’t have any books at home. So we lend them books. I allow them to take home whatever books they want to read. And I buy them books. I see them reading books, and I just buy them.”

In adapting her dual-language curriculum to the Common Core standards, Marte said she has made several adjustments including, separating the class into small reading groups to accommodate different levels, using more videos to assist reading comprehension and reading aloud more.

“We’re definitely doing more read aloud,” Marte said. “That helps a lot because sometimes students don’t have people who read to them in English. That also develops their vocabulary because they hear the words.”

Related: Immigrant children in Europe seem to learn best when assimilated in schools, data show

Similar to teachers with English-speaking students Marte said she is incorporating more ELA texts that are related to the Common Core social studies standards. For example, the third-grade social studies standards require knowing the continents and ELA focuses on biographies. For that reason, Marte assigned her students a biography of Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai, which is available in English and Spanish.

“I knew that would be a good connection to what we’re studying in social studies. That’s how I go about doing things,” she said.

Marte also tries to make literary selections that strike a cultural and socio-economic connection with her students. One book that proved popular with her third-graders was a biography of the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral, who grew up in poverty and went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

“When there is a connection, they understand it better,” she said. “I chose someone who has gone through a lot of problems in their life for them to see that it doesn’t matter where you come from. You can overcome this and you can become whatever you want. Just to give them a little push that if you work hard, you’ll make it.”

Arlette already knows the importance of doing well in school. When asked if anyone helps her with assignments at home, she shakes her head in a silent “no.” If she gets stuck, she turns to her tablet to translate words from English to Spanish and vice versa.

For her, the importance of a dual-language education is not solely related to succeeding in the U.S., it is also maintaining a connection to the family in her homeland.

“I still have family in the Dominican Republic and I need to speak to them when I visit. That’s why I can’t forget Spanish,” she said.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Common Core.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *