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Now that voters passed Proposition 58, school districts and principals across the state are trying to figure out whether to grow bilingual education programs – and if so, how. We talked with three experts about what should happen next.
Eddie Caballero, principal of Sherman Elementary, a bilingual immersion program in Sherman Heights, accomplished something never before tried in San Diego Unified. He created a successful bilingual immersion school that educates native English and Spanish speakers alike.
Bilingual immersion schools have existed in the district since the ’70s. But prior to 2008, when Sherman opened, they catered to affluent and middle-class English-speaking students whose parents wanted them to pick up another language.
Last year, 84 percent of Sherman students reclassified by the time they left fifth grade, which means they demonstrated fluency in English. Sherman students also bested district and state test score averages, upending old assumptions about what English-learning students are capable of academically.
So it surprised me, when I met with Caballero in August, that he had mixed feelings about Proposition 58, a statewide ballot measure passed by voters in November that makes it easier for schools to mount bilingual programs.
It wasn’t that Caballero doesn’t support bilingual programs. Eight years of rising test scores and improved enrollment at Sherman demonstrates his commitment.
What concerned Caballero about Prop. 58 was that he knows growing a strong program takes time and patience. He worried that making it easier to open bilingual schools would entice school districts and principals to rush to open bilingual schools without laying the foundation for a successful program.
When he worked to open Sherman, he said he faced district officials who didn’t think the model could work in a low-income community. He recruited bilingual teachers who wanted to be part of a team that created a curriculum together. He worked to inform parents on the benefits of a bilingual education, and get them to sign waivers, documenting that they agreed to the bilingual approach.
It wasn’t an overnight success. The first year it opened, Sherman’s test scores were the lowest in the district. But Caballero had informed parents ahead of time that this is common with dual-immersion programs – student test scores lag in the early grades, but pick up steam by fifth grade. At that point, students in bilingual programs tend to catch up and often surpass their peers in English-only programs.
Yet, in spite of all the challenges, Caballero and his staff were able to create a program that works for Sherman’s students and parents.
Now that Prop. 58 has passed, school districts and principals across the state are trying to figure out whether to grow bilingual programs – and if so, how.
Experts share Caballero’s concern. I talked to three of them: Patricia Gándara, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA; Cristina Alfaro, chair for the Department of Dual Language and English Learner Education at SDSU; and Olympia Kyriakidis, who oversees and supports language programs across the county at the San Diego County Office of Education. Here are some things they say need to happen next.
Growing strong bilingual programs requires strong bilingual teachers. But right now, most school districts in California have no idea how supply stacks up to demand.
“On a statewide basis, we literally have no idea how many of these teachers we have and how many we need, because we haven’t been tracking it. We don’t have data for which teachers have bilingual credentials, or how many may want to step into that role. So I think we badly need a census in this state. That should be our first priority,” said Gándara.
Alfaro, who prepares bilingual teachers at SDSU, said Prop. 227, an English-only mandate passed in 1998, decimated the state’s ranks of bilingual teachers.
“There was virtually no incentive for teachers to pursue bilingual credentials,” said Alfaro. “Why would you prepare for a job that doesn’t exist?”
In fact, Alfaro said in the years that followed the Prop. 227, numbers dropped so low SDSU almost closed her program.
But she was able to keep it afloat, and the number of teachers seeking bilingual credentials slowly ticked up. For the past few years, her program has prepared 50 to 60 bilingual teachers a year. Yet, the numbers have plateaued, even while the demand has picked up.
Alfaro agrees with Gándara: School districts need a teacher count. Alfaro is creating a survey along with Chula Vista school district, which she said has always been forward-thinking when it comes to bilingual education. Twenty out of Chula Vista’s 45 schools are bilingual – the highest concentration in the county.
She’s hoping the survey Chula Vista sends out can be used as a model for other school districts.
Once districts have a better idea of how many teachers already have a bilingual teaching credential, they’ll have a better idea of how supply compares to demand.
Alfaro teaches a graduate class at SDSU that includes many current San Diego teachers. One day she took an informal survey in her class of 30 to see how many teachers already had a bilingual teaching credential but were teaching in English-only programs. She was shocked when half the class raised their hands.
Part of the reason for this, said Alfaro, is that there hasn’t been much incentive for teachers to get a bilingual credential. In fact, some teachers felt it worked against them.
“These teachers have never really been treated with respect or as though they had special expertise, but rather: You’re the bilingual person, you do the translating, you do all this extra work. So there’s some baggage here, I guess you could say,” Alfaro said.
Incentivizing teachers to seek bilingual credentials – either through financial compensation, or other means – may be in a step in the right direction.
To create a sustainable pool of teachers, Alfaro said, school districts need to grow their own pipelines by recruiting high school graduates or community college students.
The best candidates, she said, are students who graduate from high school with a Seal of Biliteracy, a statewide distinction for students who’ve shown they can read, write and speak in multiple languages. Not only have those students demonstrated mastery of another language, they know the context of California communities – a trait that would be lacking if school districts look outside the state or country to recruit bilingual teachers.
Roughly 125,000 students have graduated with the seal since the state started offering it in 2012. There’s no good reason school districts shouldn’t turn to recent graduates, said Gándara.
Before Kyriakidis moved over to the San Diego County office of Education, where she oversees dual-language programs across the county, she was founding principal of a trilingual school in Lakeside Union.
When she was working to open that school, she thought first of a two-way immersion program, like Sherman Elementary’s, where native English speakers learn from native Spanish speakers, and vice-versa.
But two-way immersion programs require a balance of native Spanish and English speakers, and she worried she might not have the numbers to support it. Compared with, say, San Diego Unified or Chula Vista school districts, Lakeside had a lower percentage of English-learners and a higher percentage of white and affluent parents.
But when Kyriakidis engaged parents, she learned a good number of them did want their kids to learn multiple languages. And not just Spanish, but Mandarin too. The result was a trilingual school, where children can communicate with 75 percent of the world’s population by the time they leave fifth grade.
In order to know which model will work, school districts have to understand what parents are looking for, and what will work for the community’s population, said Kyriakidis. The trilingual school may not have worked in Sherman Heights. Opening a two-way immersion school was difficult in Lakeside.
Alfaro said it’s not uncommon for her to get calls from enthusiastic principals who want to open a dual immersion program just like another school down the street, which is working well. But it doesn’t work like that.
“It’s very good for principals to look at model programs, but they can’t think they can simply transplant those programs to their community,” said Alfaro.
Alfaro urges principals to commit to a year of planning before they move forward. In that first year, they should assemble a bilingual literacy team, including teachers, parents, school leaders and an expert who understands the research behind bilingual education.
Research shows bilingual education can be an effective approach for English-learners. One notable study shows that English-learners educated in bilingual programs outperform their peers taught in English-only programs.
Still, a stigma remains, particularly with some Latino families, that bilingual education will hurt their children’s ability to learn English. The only way to dispel that notion, said Alfaro, is by educating parents.
“I think there are parents that still think that – maybe because they had negative experiences with a bilingual program – that they’re not very effective. However, when you go to upper middle-class communities, they totally get it. They go, ‘This is good stuff. This is really good for our kids.’ They understand it from a global perspective, they understand it from a 21st century skill perspective,” said Alfaro.
The trick is getting multilingual parents to understand that bilingual education is an asset, not a limitation.
“This is really powerful with our Latino parents,” Alfaro said. “When I tell them these programs are very popular in higher economic areas, they think: ‘Wait a minute, what am I missing?’ Then they get excited. They realize it would also be good for their culture and their language. They realize it’s a strength. We need to do a better job putting those things at the forefront and delivering the message in a way that makes sense to parents.”
No question, parent demand for bilingual education is there. Every year, well-established dual immersion schools in San Diego Unified get more applications than they have seats. More programs are opening in San Diego County every year.
School districts, like San Diego Unified, seizing on the opportunity to attract parents, are promoting their growing number of programs.
But this comes with a cautionary note, a point made by all three experts: School districts need to go slow, move methodically and do it right. If school districts move too quickly, they’re more likely to open programs that just don’t work.
“There are some schools right now, and I know because I’ve done an audit, that claim to have a dual-language program, and it really is not. It’s like a pseudo program. Either make it a true dual-immersion program, or don’t do it. Because then you give a bad name to bilingual education when it’s not done right,” said Alfaro.
Alfaro said she’s particularly concerned whether the principals appointed to run bilingual programs will have enough expertise to align their programs with what research says works best. But that responsibility will fall on individual school districts.
“Unless there is some mechanism in the district to monitor the principals who are going to be running these programs, they’ll be doing whatever they want, unless someone is inspecting what they’re doing. And that’s the danger. And we see that a lot, unfortunately.”
Alfaro points to Sherman Elementary, which took years of work, planning and adjustments to get to the program it has today.
“That’s the way it should be done,” said Alfaro. “If we hurry into this and we don’t plan and just kind of move with the momentum, then I don’t think we’re going to get the results that our children deserve.”
To learn more, check out the Dual Language and English Learner Conference, happening in San Diego Jan. 11-13.
VOSD staff writer Mario Koran is also a fellow at New America California.