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Dual language immersion programs will grow at LAUSD with or without Prop. 58

Craig Clough | November 6, 2016

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Isabel Anderson with her third-grade students at Vista Del Valle Dual Language Academy.

The majority of  Vista Del Valle Dual Language Academy students in San Fernando don’t have just one teacher, they have two. And they don’t have just one classroom, they have two, where they spend half their day learning in English and the other half learning in Spanish. It’s all part of the school’s dual language immersion program, one of 75 in LA Unified and part of a growing trend.

Only two years ago, the district had 57 dual language programs. Twelve were added this year, along with an additional $6 million in budget funds, and the district plans to continue adding more.

The growth of dual language programs — where students are taught 50 percent of the time in English and 50 percent in a second language in a classroom where roughly half the students are fluent English speakers and half are English learners — is part of shifting attitudes in California and LA Unified about bilingual public education and English-only instruction.

In 1998, California voters approved Proposition 227, which put substantial restrictions on bilingual education and mandated English-only instruction. But on Tuesday, voters have an opportunity to reverse course with Proposition 58 and lift those restrictions while making it easier for parents to choose a language course for their children and giving schools more opportunity to offer guidance and recommendations.

“It is a different time and a different way of looking at the world. We are 18 years later (from Prop. 227) and we are realizing that the skills and jobs that our students are going into are going to require those kinds of skills that multilingualism brings on, so that is where I see it going,” said Hilda Maldonado, executive director of LA Unified’s Multilingual and Multicultural Education Department.

Enrollment in district schools declined last school year for the 12th consecutive year, and district officials have estimated that every 3 percent drop costs it roughly $100 million in funding. As a result of the enrollment drop and other factors, the district is facing huge budget deficits in the coming years and its leaders are scrambling to find ways to right the financial ship. Along with other popular programs like magnets, both Superintendent Michelle King and board President Steve Zimmer have pointed to dual language immersion programs as a way to attract more students to the district or keep them from leaving.

At Vista Del, that theory has proven true. While 85 percent of the dual language students come from the neighborhood, the other 15 percent are open enrollment students whose parents send their children there specifically for the dual language program. Some of its students even come from outside the district in places like Burbank, Glendale and Santa Clarita. Aside from helping to keep students in the district, Vista Del Principal Mary Mendoza said it also helps keep highly involved parents as well.

“The type of parent you get that shops for what they want is the type of parent who is going to be very informed and very involved and asking the right kind of questions and will be keeping us on our toes,” Mendoza said.

The district already has plans to expand bilingual education, with or without Prop. 58, and currently offers programs for Spanish, Korean, Armenian and Mandarin. The school board has passed a number of resolutions aimed at expanding dual language programs, including the “Commitment to Prepare Students for a Multilingual Global Economy” resolution in 2013. Some recent studies have shown the benefits of dual language immersion and bilingual programs, including a 2014 Stanford study which found them to be more effective long-term for English learners.

Prop. 227 allows for bilingual education, but parents must sign a waiver form and school administrators are not allowed to offer recommendations on language programs to parents. There are multiple approaches to bilingual education in California, but the most common are dual language immersion, referred to as a 50:50 model, and also the 90:10 model. In dual language, students spend 50 percent of their time being taught in English and 50 percent in the non-English target language.

Under the 90:10 approach, the amount of the target language decreases yearly, after typically starting off at 90 percent of the time in non-English, and English increases until there is a 50:50 balance of the languages. Students must be started at an early age to qualify for non-English programs, and they usually do not accept English-only speakers after first grade and English learners after second grade.

Mendoza said when Prop. 227 passed it slowed down the growth of non-English instruction for a time, but that it had other negative impacts on English learners.

“When 227 passed, I started to see a societal change, because you have children unable to communicate with their parents. And parents unable to parent effectively because that communication is not effective, because the kids say, ‘Yeah, yeah, I don’t understand what you are saying,'” she said. “I think bilingualism helps strengthen family ties and improve job prospects.”

Coramia Ellana Garcia Crisanto, a fifth-grader at Vista Del, has parents who speak English but a grandmother and great-grandmother who only speak Spanish.

“I like it because you won’t forget your culture and your language or where you came from,” she said when asked what she likes best about her school.

At Vista Del, roughly half the dual language students come to the school fluent in English and half come as English learners fluent in Spanish. For the dual language model to work at a school in LA Unified, the 50/50 split in languages must be attainable based on the surrounding community, and the ratio should never go below 33 percent for either language group, according to state guidelines. Each grade level at Vista Del typically has three classes, and two out of three are dual language programs. The school opened in 2010 and will be graduating its first cohort class when its fifth-graders finish the spring semester.

“What I have learned specific to dual language is when the two teachers team up, they have to click. It is like neighbors, you have to communicate regularly,” Mendoza said. “I’m not saying you have to have the same outlook on life, but you have to be able to disagree and state your reasons why and do it in a professional manner and they have to respect each other. There have been some pairings that didn’t work and you have to just tweak it along the way until you find the right match.”

At some other programs in LA Unified and for Vista Del’s fifth-grade class, one teacher spends part of the time speaking in English and the other in the second language being taught.

“With me, growing up they didn’t want us to speak Spanish and now I feel like speaking Spanish is cool,” said Vista Del fifth-grade teacher Deborah Carillo. “And the kids think it is cool, and they see it on TV now and they think it is cool to speak our language. Where when I was growing up it wasn’t cool, it was frowned upon. I wish there was a program like this growing up.”

During the last decade, multiple research studies have demonstrated the significant cognitive benefits of students learning a second language, and also that bilingual students tend to outperform their peers on standardized tests. At Vista Del, the dual language students did better that the English-only students on a recent Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) test.

“I’ve noticed the dual language students progress at a more rapid rate,” Carillo said. “They are able to think cognitively and they are more analytical. And I think that’s great because you read all these research studies but as a teacher you see the results. It is already rewarding being a teacher, but even more so when you are able to provide the language and have the knowledge of the language to provide for the students. It is a great feeling.”

Maldonado said the dual language programs have been growing by about 10 percent each year the last few years, and interest from schools has been also growing.

“Every year at this time of the year we do informational meetings with principals interested in starting those programs or who have heard from their communities that they are interested in starting those programs,” Maldonado said. “They come to our planning meetings and we take them through a planning process in regards to staffing and planning, and this year we had 21 principals come to the meeting, and that is the most we have had.”

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