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Not since the 1970s and ‘80s — when many school districts put desegregation busing in place in order to realize the promise of the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision — has school integration been in the news as much as it has lately.
U.S. Education Secretary John King has proclaimed school integration a key priority. Policymakers have focused on attaining diversity because of the benefits for all students, regardless of their background.
School integration has been a critical priority for many waves of education reformers: students in diverse, integrated schools grow up better prepared to flourish in a plural democratic society and economy.
Yet efforts to convert this promise into practice have repeatedly crashed and broken against various intractable interests: familial anxieties, real estate patterns, and scarcely concealed racism or bigotry. Anxious, privileged, predominantly white families have too frequently responded to integration efforts by leaving diverse neighborhoods or cities for wealthier communities beyond the borders of local desegregation efforts.
Fortunately, this round of interest in integration is sparking in a new context. America’s schools and communities are more diverse than ever — particularly in regards to language. For the first time in history, our public schools are majority minority. These new conditions suggest new opportunities for integrating schools through instructional programs that actually require diverse student enrollment to function.
So, what to do? Some have wondered if instead of promoting diversity for its own sake, school districts might attract families of diverse backgrounds to enroll in integrated schools by promoting unique educational themes. Might privileged families be willing to enroll their children in integrated schools that promise thematic instruction focused on science, the arts, or technology? Perhaps.
But what if we took this thinking a step further and designed and promoted schools that actually required integration for their model to work?
Dual immersion programs offer precisely that. These models provide rigorous academic instruction in two languages and enroll roughly equal numbers of children who are native English speakers and those who are native speakers of the program’s “target” language (often, but not exclusively, Spanish).
These programs need a diverse student body because their pedagogical approach relies on specific assets that different children bring to school. Both sets of students learn from one another — the Spanish-dominant students support the emerging bilingualism of the English-dominant students, and vice versa. Importantly, recent research shows that being bilingual actually makes you smarter.
To be sure, this approach does not represent a comprehensive solution to the problem of segregated schools. Not all parents want to send their children to dual immersion schools, and these programs only work as an integration solution when there are concentrations of students who speak the native language. Furthermore, finding qualified teachers who speak a foreign language is a real challenge.
But there’s no question that dual immersion programs can foster more integration in more public schools. The current supply of these programs falls well short of families’ interest. Dual immersion programs in Washington, D.C. are wildly popular: this year, D.C. Bilingual Public Charter School and Mundo Verde Public Charter School had 832 and 1,295 children on their respective waitlists, respectively.
While no integration effort is ever simple —especially one that requires schools to implement a new instructional model — today’s conditions are encouraging. Schools have increasing numbers of linguistically diverse students, and greater flexibility for deciding how to meet their needs. Furthermore, families of varied backgrounds increasingly expect schools to offer unique academic themes that help students succeed. Dual immersion programs recognize and celebrate their diverse backgrounds, not as a side benefit, but as a core element of the model’s effectiveness. That’s an extraordinary opportunity for policymakers — and well worth their attention.
Catherine Brown is the vice president of education policy at the Center for American Progress. She is the mother of a bilingual student who is enrolled in a public Spanish-English dual immersion program.
Conor P. Williams is the founding director of New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group. He is a former first-grade teacher and the father of two English-Welsh bilingual children who are enrolling in a public Spanish-English dual immersion program this fall.