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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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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.
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.”
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.