Why is it important to be bilingual?
For some people, being bilingual means having a better chance to find a job or a bridge to understand another culture.
For others, it means being able to succeed academically and socially in the U.S., where the domestic language is English, and at the same time being able to converse with their grandparents who only speak Spanish.
There is a bilingual education program called the Dual Language Immersion program that almost everyone in Richmond supports because it enables English learners to retain the Spanish language they first learned. And yet few people have mobilized to get it adopted in the majority of schools in a district in which about one third of students are English learners. Eight out of 12 elementary schools have not adopted the dual immersion program.
“Even though it started 14 years ago, in the past, there hasn’t really been a lot of attention or support given to the program,” said Bryan Brandow, a fourth and fifth-grade teacher at Washington Elementary School’s dual immersion program.
Matthew Duffy, who became the superintendent of the school district three years ago, said a decision to extend dual immersion to more schools must be made by the community, the principals and the district together. And there hasn’t been a comprehensive effort from the community to push for such an extension, he said.
The dual immersion program originated in the 1960s in Dade County schools in Florida, where Cuban immigrants supported both languages. The most important difference between other bilingual education programs is that English never replaces the minority language in the dual immersion program. Instead, English learners gradually spend increasingly more class time in English but always with some instruction in their original language.
Andrea Zavala Cruces, 14, is a seventh-grade student in the dual immersion program at the Fred T. Korematsu Middle School in Richmond. Growing up, Cruces spoke only Spanish with her parents so she was an English learner.
Ten years ago, Cruces’ mom, Erika Cruces Franco, decided to enroll her in the dual immersion program at Richmond’s Washington Elementary School, which was the first elementary school in the Contra Costa Unified School District to adopt the program.
Cruces said she recognized immediately the value of the program that allowed her daughter to be able to speak, listen and read in both English and Spanish. Some in her family said that was a bad idea, she recalled, and it was better for her daughter to attend an English school and learn Spanish at home from her mother.
Andrea Cruces said she is grateful that her mother didn’t listen to that advice because she can see the difference between her Spanish-speaking ability and that of her cousins who went to schools with programs that only taught in English.
“Most of my cousins aren’t fluent in Spanish, and that makes me really sad because I can easily connect with my great grandma, my grandparents, my uncles and my aunts that only speak Spanish. But my cousins, they don’t even know how to say ‘Good morning’ in Spanish,” she said.
The dual immersion program allows Spanish-speaking English learners and English speakers to take classes together and learn from each other. The program provides 90 percent of instructions in Spanish and 10 percent in English in kindergarten and first grade. And then each year, the program adds 10 percent additional instruction in English until half of the instruction is in Spanish and the other half in English in fifth grade. This continues into sixth grade and then students have the opportunity to enroll in a dual immersion in middle school, like the one at the Fred T. Korematsu Middle School.
Ilona Clark is a Richmond resident who enrolled both of her English-speaking children at the dual immersion program in Washington Elementary more than a decade ago. She said the program challenged her children to learn another language at a young age, and it turned out great.
“It’s a practical skill. It’s a win-win-win,” Clark said.
While students from different backgrounds are celebrating a “win-win” at Washington Elementary, bilingual teachers have concerns at Lincoln Elementary School that lies in about 1.5 miles away, also in Richmond.
Lincoln Elementary uses another approach with English learners that is called the Transitional Bilingual Program.
The program provides mostly Spanish instruction in kindergarten, with a few English language development sessions. Starting with first grade, it provides English instruction in math and a few other subjects. In third grade, the program provides 60 percent of instruction in English. And by fourth grade, students are transitioned into English-only classes and no further instruction takes place in Spanish.
Currently, students in this transitional bilingual program don’t have to pass a standardized English language exam to move to English-only classes in fourth grade.
Jesus Galindo, a bilingual teacher at the transitional bilingual program at Lincoln Elementary, said many teachers are concerned about the program’s outcome because of the rapid transition to English and the lack of a language examination to ensure students have a solid enough foundation to succeed academically in English-only classes.
Studies have indicated that both English learners and English speakers in the dual immersion program increased their scores in reading and math in English in later grades. Students in the transitional bilingual program who moved to English-only classes in fourth grade did not improve their scores across grades, according to Athens Journal of Education’s study,“ Transitional Bilingual Education and Two-Way Immersion Programs: Comparison of Reading Outcomes for English Learners in the United States.”.
Lisa Jimenez, the executive director of the Multilingual and Multicultural Services in the school district, said her department supports the dual immersion program because, “many dual immersion students outperform their English-only peers,” and that it offers unique opportunities for students to achieve high academic outcomes while becoming bilingual and biliterate in a global community.
Brandow, the teacher at Washington Elementary, said the appreciation for both languages in the dual immersion program creates opportunities for students to have a diverse social group. He told the story of a Spanish-speaking student living in North Richmond who became best friends with an English-speaking student living in the Iron Triangle, and said he believed that it wouldn’t have been possible without the program.
When the reporter asked which program he would recommend for students, Brandow said, “That’s not even a question. Definitely Dual Immersion.”
And yet despite his and other educators’ view of the dual immersion program being clearly superior for students, most elementary schools in the West Contra Costa Unified School District don’t use the program. Instead, they still use the more transitional bilingual approach in which students move to English-only classes in fourth grade.
The Multilingual District Advisory Committee at the school district identified the weaknesses with the transitional bilingual approach several years ago. In the 2015-2016 academic year, the multilingual committee made the recommendation to, “expand the transitional program beyond third grade” because it diminishes the value of the home language.
But it wasn’t until this year that Downer Elementary School in San Pablo took a step to transition its transitional bilingual program to dual immersion.
Marco Gonzales, the executive director of elementary schools at the school district, worked as Downer’s principal for the past nine years until this June. Gonzales grew up in Richmond as an English speaker. He said his parents suffered from discrimination for speaking Spanish, so he was taught little Spanish as a child.
But he said he now wishes he had studied more Spanish so he was fully proficient. When he worked at Downer as the principal, he had the idea of transitioning its transitional bilingual program into a dual immersion approach. He said his personal experience influenced him about the importance of being bilingual.
But taking a step to change the bilingual program at Downer wasn’t easy. Gonzales said the biggest challenge was making parents aware of the benefits of the dual immersion program. Only one parent attended the first parent information night. Gonzales did not give up and hosted more parent meetings, and finally, more than 15 parents showed up and listened to his proposal about changing to the dual immersion program.
Gonzalez said Downer’s transition didn’t require additional funding or recruiting new teachers. And training teachers from the transitional bilingual program did not cost significantly more. The California Association for Bilingual Educators agreed to train the teachers.
Now more parents have learned about the dual language program and became interested in it. But as of now, no other schools have proposed to transition into the dual immersion program, according the Jimenez.