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dual language programs
Oyster-Adams Bilingual School has the longest-running dual-language program in the D.C. Public Schools and is one of the most sought after, with hundreds of students on its waitlist. Credit: Tara García Mathewson/The Hechinger Report

WASHINGTON — Meri Kolbrener moved to a gentrified neighborhood in northwest D.C. so her children could get a guaranteed spot in the Oyster-Adams Bilingual School. The public school is not far from where Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner live, a neighborhood that used to be predominantly Latino but changed color years ago. Now, many wealthy white parents, who once kept their children out of the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), are flocking to programs like Oyster-Adams’ because, as Principal Mayra Canizales put it, “dual language became sexy.”

The school has a waitlist of nearly 800 applicants, the vast majority of whom are native English speakers; from that majority, maybe five will get in. Kolbrener, though, doesn’t have to worry. Families who own a home within the school’s attendance boundary have a guaranteed right to enroll. It’s only those outside of the neighborhood who end up on the waitlist.

While neither Kolbrener nor her husband speak Spanish, all three of their children do. At Oyster-Adams, half of the classes are taught in Spanish, so their kids get about three hours of instruction in the language every day, plus additional supports as necessary.

Rosa Zelaya’s child, on the other hand, gets just one 45-minute Spanish class per week at Truesdell Education Campus, north of downtown. There, 67 percent of students are Latino and nearly half speak Spanish better than they speak English, but they don’t get to build on their native language during the school day. Zelaya worries that her children won’t ever learn to read and write in Spanish. Even with the head start they get at home, Zelaya’s children will almost certainly leave DCPS with lower literacy skills in Spanish than Kolbrener’s.

Related: How can being bilingual be an asset for white students and a deficit for immigrants?

Most students who show up to school without English fluency in D.C. — and across the country — don’t get bilingual instruction. They are often kept from learning new content in subjects such as science while they’re taught the mechanics of English. Out of the 10 dual language schools in the D.C. district open during the 2015-16 school year, English learners made up more than a quarter of the student population at six of the schools. At two of D.C.’s dual language schools, English learners were just 1 or 2 percent of the population. According to the district, only 24 percent of English learners in DCPS attend dual-language programs.

“Privilege does wonders. You have very loud voices and, especially right now, given what’s going on with immigration and the fear that families have, the likelihood that you would see any of our immigrant families beating down the doors for any of these services … they’re scared to death.”

In a city with far greater demand for dual-language education than supply, there will always be losers. Programs that were created to serve Latino immigrants have become coveted enrichment opportunities for native English speakers who recognize the value of being bilingual in a globalized world. And while DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson has talked about dual-language expansion as a priority, there are only so many qualified teachers to go around, creating a debate about which students and which schools should get access to these programs first.

dual language programs
At Oyster-Adams Bilingual School in Washington, D.C., 60 percent of students are Latino, 29 percent are white and 5 percent are black. They learn in Spanish half the day. Credit: Tara García Mathewson/The Hechinger Report

Beatriz Otero, a veteran of the early battles for dual-language education in D.C., and founder of DC Bilingual Public Charter School, said she’s pleased that dual language is catching on, but worries that Latino students could get left behind.

“Privilege does wonders,” Otero said. “You have very loud voices and, especially right now, given what’s going on with immigration and the fear that families have, the likelihood that you would see any of our immigrant families beating down the doors for any of these services — they’re scared to death. They’re not going out anywhere, so their voices aren’t heard.”

The DC Language Immersion Project has been one of the loudest voices in favor of expanded dual-language education for the last few years. It formed in 2014 as a grassroots collective of parents, educators and community members interested in the broad goal of multilingual literacy for all.

The co-founders of the group are Italian and African-American, and they made their first major campaign the creation of a Spanish-English dual-language program at Houston Elementary. The school, on the city’s east side in an almost entirely black, English-speaking neighborhood, provided a strategic opportunity, according to co-founder and executive director of the project, Vanessa Bertelli: If they could successfully advocate for a dual-language program in this neighborhood, with these demographics, it would be an easier sell everywhere else.

Co-founder Jimell Sanders’ daughter is now enrolled in the school’s inaugural preschool class.

Related: Dual-language programs benefit disadvantaged black kids, too, experts say

But even though the Houston Elementary program is celebrated for offering dual-language education to a group of students that has historically been shut out of the equation, research indicates they won’t get as much value from the program as Spanish-speaking children from immigrant families would, or as any of the students at Oyster-Adams do.

At Houston Elementary, the only native Spanish speakers that students hear are their teachers. At Oyster-Adams, on the other hand, where administrators have always maintained a 50-50 split in the language backgrounds of students, children develop a social vocabulary in addition to an academic one by talking to their friends.

“It helps build a more robust use of the language,” said Conor Williams, founding director of the Dual Language Learners National Work Group at New America.

Many researchers call this model, in which half the students are native speakers of one language and half of the other, the gold standard — especially for students who show up to school speaking Spanish, the partner language in most of the nation’s dual-language programs. These students, known as English learners or Spanish-dominant students, get to reinforce their first language as they learn a second because their teachers draw on what they know in Spanish to teach them English.

While it may seem intuitive to say total immersion will lead to faster mastery of a language, and some research does support this argument, many experts say that’s wrong. One oft-cited example compares learning a second language to learning to play a second instrument. A violinist uses an understanding of music to learn to play piano in the same way a Spanish speaker uses an understanding of verb conjugations and the connections between letters and sounds in Spanish to learn English.

dual language programs
Three students work together on a project at Oyster-Adams Bilingual School in Washington D.C., where dual-language program demand is creating equity concerns. Credit: Tara García Mathewson/The Hechinger Report

A team led by McGill University’s Fred Genesee analyzed 25 years of research for a 2005 paper, finding strong evidence that English learners who get instruction in their native language have greater educational success. What’s more, George Mason University professors Virginia Collier and Wayne Thomas have identified dual language programs as the only ones that close achievement gaps between English learners and their peers in the long term. And a more recent study in Portland, this one randomized, found significant benefits of the district’s dual language program. Students randomly assigned to the program outperformed their peers in English reading by seven months in fifth grade and nine months in eighth grade.

Related: English one day, Español the next: Dual-language learning expands with a South Bronx school as a model

Beyond the possibility of learning English more quickly, Stanford education professor Claude Goldenberg is among those who has championed what he calls the “inherent advantage of knowing and being literate in two languages.”

“No one should be surprised to learn that all studies of bilingual education have found that teaching children in their primary language promotes achievement in the primary language,” Goldenberg wrote in an article for the American Federation of Teachers. “This should be seen as a value in and of itself.”

“Staffing is a continual challenge.”

One reason district officials say dual-language programs are not the norm is staffing. Bilingual program developer Katarina Brito said that DCPS is competing with the rest of the nation to hire highly qualified teachers who are not only trained in specific subjects, but also capable of running a classroom in Spanish.

“Staffing is a continual challenge,” Brito said — and that’s despite the fact that DCPS boasts one of the highest starting salaries in the country and the possibility of six figures after seven years. Partnerships with international organizations have created a pipeline for bilingual teachers, but they depend on visas that expire after three years, and Brito said many of the teachers return home because of culture shock.

The growing demand for dual-language programs has forced district administrators to consider a vision for careful expansion. Brito said equity has been top of mind. Although schools reserve dual-language program seats for native Spanish speakers, decisions about where new programs will open next will affect that access, and the district has not made decisions about how to balance the demands of families and the needs of students.

In conversations with more than a dozen Spanish-speaking parents at several D.C. schools with large Latino populations but no dual-language programs, the tensions are clear.

At Raymond Elementary School, north of downtown, Wendy Ordoñez and other Latino parents describe frustration with communication barriers between themselves and a mostly English-speaking school staff. Ordoñez would rather transfer her children to a dual-language program where Spanish is valued, but she hasn’t “won” the lottery that determines whether her child can go to a school outside of her neighborhood.

Nearby Powell Elementary has a dual-language program, she said, “but that’s just one school for this whole area full of Latinos.”

And Latinos aren’t the only ones who want to get in.

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Letters to the Editor

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  1. Dear Ms. García Mathewson and the Hechinger Report:
    Thank you for your recent article in the Hechinger Report on the lack of educational resources for native Spanish-speaking children in the US; it was well-written and informative.

    I am a professor in child language acquisition/child bilingualism at the University of Michigan, and since 2010 I (along with Dr. José Benkí ) have directed a Saturday academic program specifically designed for heritage language speakers of Spanish, ages 4 – 10 in southeast Michigan, En Nuestra Lengua (

    I’m writing to you with several questions/comments related to your article. I apologize in advance for the length of this email–as you will see, I am extremely passionate about this subject. I hope that the Hechinger Report may have time to respond at some point.

    a) You list in detail statistics on participaton and scholarly references, but you never really discuss the actual test outcomes, academic achievement for Latino students in the dual language (DL) programs in the DCPS system. My experience and the current research indicates that these programs do not benefit Latino children as much as they do white/black native English-speaking students, and not merely because the latter have more access to DL programs than Latinos. Latino students still end up being left out, even if they manage to get in to the DL classroom.

    This is the real equity issue: Studies (such as Ingers, Rivers, Tesser & Ashby 2002; Roca & Colombi-; Tjunelis, Benkí & Satterfield 2013) show that it’s not enough to simply ‘lump’ native Spanish-speaking children in with non-native Anglos and expect that the Latino kids will really maintain their Spanish. Spanish-speaking children have needs as minority language speakers in the US, and Spanish classes must be designed specifically to their abilities as fluent speakers of the language with a strong cultural link to their families (in and outside of the US). Importantly, these children need much more support in literacy in Spanish, and their parents also need support to learn how to support their children in the American system. When classes are mixed with both non-native speakers and native speakers of Spanish, who does the teacher teach to? To put it bluntly, Latino students are typically used in the DL program as good “models” of Spanish for the second-language learning Anglo students, but the Latino heritage language students’ needs are not equally supported in those schools.

    b) You do not discuss the success of community-based programs that are NOT depending on DCPS (or other school systems) to maintain language and culture of the heritage language. I always find it interesting that no one ever comments on Chinese or Korean, Turkish or Arab students not having access to maintain their heritage languages. Of course, it’s because those communities have resources and do not depend/expect the US educational system to support their children’s bilingualism and biliteracy. They have their own Saturday schools, and no one can deny that Chinese, Korean, Turkish and Arab students generally have a high degree of academic success in the US system. The real question: do Latinos differ from other immigrant communities in supporting their children through supplementary community programs? If so, why?

    c) Building on the previous question, you do not discuss the fact that monolingual English-speaking Americans have historically had a tendency to devalue the Spanish language, even if they flock to have their children learn it/become bilingual (see any of Jane Hill’s work 1996, 1999, more). First of all, there has always been the (incorrect) perception that compared to Chinese, German or French, Spanish is “easy” and is accessible to everyone. How often, as a university professor do I hear from disgruntled parents who do not speak Spanish and are upset that when they take their son/daughter on a vacation to Spain, that the son/daughter could not fluently communicate in Spanish, even though “they studied Spanish for 3 semesters!” No one one would consider saying the same for students of Chinese or even French! Secondly, of course there is a link between bilingualism and biculturalism, and we know from research that when minority language children’s language and culture are not truly represented and valued in their schools, they (as well as their Anglo classmates) internalize this negative sentiment toward the minority language…low self-esteem and lack of identity leads to many of the academic and social woes that we see in Latinos/students of color (Arrendondo, Rosado & Satterfield 2016).

    Our Michigan community-based program, En Nuestra Lengua (ENL) is a Saturday Spanish literacy and culture program for 150 children, ages 4 – 10, whose home language is Spanish. We are also a multifaceted research program that investigates bilingual language acquisition, heritage language literacy and a range of diverse topics where our unique population of bilingual, bicultural and biliterate children is understudied in U.S. public health, education, psychology, informatics, public policy, ecological sciences–you name it. ENL has been in operation since 2010; its mission is to promote excellence in education, pride in culture/family, and to provide support for Spanish-speaking families who are learning to navigate the U.S. education system. Based on standardized national tests, 89% of ENL students read at grade level in Spanish and 84% read at grade-level in English (even though ENL does not teach English, this is the value-added of children who learn to read in their home language). We also provide community-based service learning collaborations, internship opportunities and mentoring for area High School and University students. In 2012, the National Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL) in Washington DC Heritage Alliances named ENL as “a model program with strong potential for nation-wide replication.”
    Teresa Satterfield Linares, Associate Professor of Romance Linguistics
    Department of Romance Languages & Literatures
    Center for the Study of Complex Systems
    Center for Human Growth and Development
    Director, En Nuestra Lengua Literacy and Culture Project
    University of Michigan

  2. In response to Teresa Satterfield Linares:

    Thanks for your comments and the research leads! I’ll keep your a/b/c structure for clarity.

    a) I couldn’t get comparative data about ELL outcomes in and outside of dual language programs in DCPS for this story. I have heard that DC’s dual language programs vary widely when it comes to quality, which is a concern. I have also heard, more generally, the issue you brought up about how Latino students are treated in DL programs. I have wanted to explore that for a different story and simply haven’t had the opportunity to yet.

    b) This is an interesting question. Part of it seems to be about population size. Larger, concentrated immigrant communities represent a riper opportunity for school districts to consider dual language over some other type of ESL program but I haven’t explored the community angle at all, or the differences across ethnic groups.

    c) Please keep an eye out for my forthcoming project about the Margarita Muñiz Academy in Boston. That addresses some of these themes. And also, check out It explores Massachusetts’ requirement for English-only instruction of English-learners while making an exception for dual language programs that serve native English-speakers.

    Thanks for reading The Hechinger Report!

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