The Struggle of a Bilingual America: A retrospective on bilingual education and biliteracy programs and how Montebello USD’s Dual Language Immersion program leads by example
“We can no longer afford to simply learn languages and cultures; but rather, we must provide students with opportunities to learn languages and cultures by participating in communicative interactions that prepare for real-world language use and global citizenship. Language learning needs to be a lifelong endeavor.” —“Developing Global Competency” introduction excerpt to the California World Languages Content Standards 2009.
In the mid-2000s, California was experiencing a reawakening as technology and the global economy advanced connecting countries and redefining international commerce in its wake. The global market itself by the nature of professional natural selection began to evolve eliminating positions of old in favor of new innovation and modern skill sets. Mass communication itself had to evolve in order to catch up. Global markets opened up inviting international players to play with their US counterparts. Forecasters predicted that a major change was going to hit our economy, but the degree to which it actually occurred in hindsight was unprecedented. After the Great Recession of 2008 struck sending ripples of economic uncertainty across the globe, scholars, educators, and professional elites agreed that the US had to better prepare its youth for the 21st century marketplace which included changing old perspectives like that of bilingual education, bi-literacy, and multi-cultural awareness.
California became the first state to lead the charge on this linguistic enlightenment. After a political battle that nearly put the state on the path of an English-only state through Prop 227, educators and policy makers worked tirelessly to keep most of the current bilingual programs afloat and set the groundwork to which would later develop into the first state Seal of Biliteracy. The Seal of Biliteracy is now a nationally recognized certification awarded to students who meet all the bilingual literacy requirements that will better prepare students to develop multicultural and language relationships that will increase their chances of success in the 21st century marketplace. California became the first state in the nation to award the state Seal of Biliteracy to students in participating school districts in 2012. Ten thousand seals were actually awarded that year for proficiency in 29 languages. That number doubled the following year as additional school districts, charter schools, and county education offices began participating. In 2015, records show that California awarded 31,816 seals to graduating seniors in a state where 22% of the state student population at the time were English language learners. After the implementation of California’s Seal of Biliteracy, other states like New York, Texas, New Mexico, Illinois, and Washington state followed adopting their own respective Seals of Biliteracy with several more waiting for legislation to pass in their respective districts.
However, the benefits of a bilingual education and literacy are not only regulated to the economy alone. Empirical research shows that the benefits extend to cognitive, academic, social and cultural areas of interest. Language learning has been found to increase long-term cognition improving memory, problem solving, pattern recognition and critical thinking skills while preventing mental diseases related to aging like Alzheimer’s and dementia. Academically, students in dual language immersion programs promoting bilingual literacy and multiculturalism show increases in academic performance on achievement tests especially in areas related to language and literacy (California Campaign for Biliteracy. 2014). In a Stanford study, for example, students finishing middle school showed that they “were doing better in English and earning higher grades in other subjects, while graduates of English immersion programs often reached a plateau in English and performed consistently worse in other subject areas (Bilingual battle brewing in California. The Hechinger Report, Apr 19, 2016).” In a study by the Center for Research on Education, Diversity and Excellence on two-way immersion education, findings showed that “on average, native Spanish speakers in this study exhibited more balanced abilities in reading, writing, and oral language in English and Spanish than did their native English speaking peers… On average, both groups of students demonstrated intermediate to advanced levels of proficiency in English reading and in English and Spanish writing and oral language by the end of the 5th grade. (The Development of Bilingualism and Biliteracy from Grade 3 to 5: A summary of findings from CAL/CREDE Study of Two-Way Immersion Education. 2004).” On a social level, students in dual language immersion programs have also shown an increased level of cultural awareness and competency since language allows for a better understanding and empathy for other cultures. Bilingual competency also allows students to help bridge the cultural gap with their families by providing them insight and translation while engaging in their own native culture preserving their heritage while assimilating to another.
Despite these benefits and the paradigm shift on bilingual education and biliteracy policy makers and stakeholders have demonstrated, resistance still exists mostly on the issue of teacher preparation. Amid the growing research advocating increased academic performance, arguments have been made that teachers currently lack sufficient training on bilingualism and biliteracy to warrant continued support for the programs; although, the research says otherwise. The microscope is currently on teachers to perform along with their children who are enrolled in bilingual education programs. SB 2042, for example, arose in 1998 to increase teacher accountability and insure teachers are highly credentialed in California to meet the state’s education performance goals. However, the language in the bill doesn’t specifically address standards addressing bilingual education, literacy, or bilingual certification of teachers complicating the matter further since student performance indirectly becomes a reflection of teacher performance. California certification does use the BCLAD (Bilingual, Cross-cultural, Language, and Academic Development) credential/certificate to certify and prepare teachers to teach English language learners, but SB2042 didn’t include the domains under this certification in the body of its own legislation which became a dominant legislative force in the late 90s and early 2000s. Instead, legislative focus was geared toward English Language Development (ELD) than dual immersion or any other pluralistic bilingual model. Omission of any caveat related to bilingualism in that particular piece of legislation, experts say, contributed to the state’s decreasing number of qualified, certified bilingual education teachers. In a population of 1.4 million children in California’s public education system, only 693 bilingual teachers were certified for 2014-2015; that’s a big difference when looking at mid-90s figures when 835 teachers were state certified. Recently, state efforts to remedy this problem had occurred including the state’s Department of Education adopting new standards for English learning development, developing teacher workbooks to guide them while instructing English learners, and new sources of funding allocating some funds that could be appropriated to bilingual education like the California Local Control Formula, Titles 1 of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, Title 2 of the US Department of Education’s Higher Education Act, and Title 3 of the CA Department of Education’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act (Bilingual battle brewing in California. The Hechinger Report, Apr 19, 2016, Is there room for Biliteracy? Issues in Teacher Education, 2006, www.cde.ca.gov, www2.ed.gov).
There are several models of bilingual education school districts have used throughout the nation over the years ranging from assimilation to dual immersion. The oldest and rarely used now is described as submersion where the goal is to have non-English speakers learn English and assimilate to US society. The native language is not supported and the students are placed in a regular English-only classroom. Current laws have made this model illegal. The next model is ESL Pullout. Sometimes called language intensive, the model has students “pulled out” of their regular classes in order to receive an English as a Second Language (ESL) class for either a few minutes to a couple of hours depending on the program design. A similar model is the “sheltered model” where ESL and regular classes are combined and taught by either a single trained ESL teacher or by a team. In Transitional Bilingual Education, the model has the students learn content material in their native language, then taught ESL, and gives them the option of taking other less language intensive classes in English like P.E. and art. Maintenance Bilingual Education differs slightly from the others because the model requires transitioning students into English-content classes while offering support in their native language. The Enrichment, Two-Way, or Developmental Bilingual model involves both non-native English speakers and native English speakers entering a maintenance program where they’re learning the same content material but in both languages in the same class. This is designed so that the students begin to work with each other to help each other succeed in class. The design is similar in the immersion program where a portion of the curriculum is taught in a non-English speaking language during a portion of the day then it switches to English for the remainder of the school day or vice versa. Like the concurrent model where classes are taught simultaneously in both languages under a team of teachers, immersion also has students learn both languages but the majority of the content is taught in the native language then transitions to English after the first couple of years of instruction when the students are fully immersed in both English and their native language. This is called a 90/10 model where 90% of the material is taught in one language while the remaining 10 % is taught in the secondary language slowly leveling off as the children reach middle school (Bilingual Education Program Model. The Bilingual Research Model, 1995).
As general popularity for bilingual education and biliteracy increase, programs promoting them also pop up. In California, Glendale Unified School District have offered numerous immersion programs covering languages ranging from Vietnamese, Armenian, to French. The San Francisco Unified School District has programs spanning 15 schools which include middle and high schools covering languages from Spanish to Mandarin. In Montebello Unified School District, its elementary and intermediate schools have been running their immersion program for 17 years and still going strong.
In fact, Montebello Unified recently hosted an event promoting bilingual education at one of its elementary schools, La Merced Elementary, where they had partnered with Read Conmigo , a biliteracy advocate organization which debut its first documentary (Read Conmigo: A Journey to Bilingual America) on their efforts to educate the public on the realities of bilingual education and biliteracy. Free bilingual books were distributed and a panel discussion was held to answer parents’ questions on the school’s dual immersion program. La Merced Elementary Principal, Rebecca Castro, Program Specialist, Adeline Canedo, and 5th grade teacher and 2015 Dual Teacher & Language Educator of the Year, Alicia Ramos spoke on the topic of “a bilingual America” and their own Montebello USD Dual Language Immersion program.
Montebello USD K-8 Dual Language Immersion Program
Could you please tell me how you became attached to the Read Conmigo: A Journey to Bilingual America event?
Rebecca Castro: Well, a couple of years ago…This is my 1st year here at La Merced Elementary School…they were invited to participate in our Back-to-School Night. So, they came and they setup a table. Their goal is promoting literacy and reading in another language. So, when they were here, they gave out free bilingual books to families as well as providing an online resource for the families to access and continue to receive free bilingual books over the course of the year. I think it was 1 book every quarter.
Being a teacher here at the school, how has the topic of bilingual education affected your perspective on your work? What has been your perspective?
Alicia Ramos: I think when I first started teaching here about 18 years ago, there was a traditional bilingual program during a time when it was very negative and thought of as an awful philosophy of teaching. People thinking that it was not making students culpable of increasing their English capacity. There was a very different vibe. Parents who enrolled their children really believed in the program and really saw the positive effects that they could instill in their children. And so, I think the community has really begun to really see it in a different light. Being bilingual as a positive rather than a negative, and that building language is really building capacity for all of our students for the 21st century. It should be something that should be accessible to all students. Not just being bilingual but mostly bilingual and hopefully will be the goal of Montebello because we have such a diverse community. We hope to extend it to other languages.
What’s a rough, ball-park percentage of the students in your school who are “bilingual”?
RC: I can tell you that a 1/3 of the school…We have 808 students at the school, and a third of that population are enrolled in our dual language program. So, I can tell you that those children are already bilingual or are on their way to being bilingual. We have another segment of our population whose parents have chosen to place them in a mainstream, English-setting who are also currently bilingual. We have about 200-300 English learners at our school. Not all of them are in the dual language program.
How has the dual bilingual program helped the students? Have you seen a marked improvement in their scores, homework, etc?
Adeline Canedo: I think right now at the lower grades, they’re still learning 2 languages which is their primary language and secondary one which is the 90/10 model where they are learning in the other language I would say then 10% in English. So, I think as you see the children move through the grades, especially at the 3rd, 4th , 5th grade, you’re going to see some progress in academic achievement in both languages—not just one, but in both. We are assessing our children in English and in the target language which is Spanish. There’s certainly other benefits other than test scores measuring academic achievement. There are so many other areas that we need to take a look at when we talk about achievement. It’s a great group of students that we take through the process. Also great is that we get to send the students next door to the intermediate school where they have a dual language program. So, the program doesn’t stop at 5th grade; it does continue to 8th grade.
Does the dual program also encourage parent participation?
AR: Definitely. We have a very involved parent population in the dual program. They’re definitely wanting to participate and engage. We have workshops that we provide for parents. We have meetings where we promote bi-literacy and just inform parents about the benefits of the program. So, once parents become part of the dual program, they really embrace everything that comes along with it– parents volunteer for different activities at school even as much as tutoring. Other students (on their own time) hold meetings with parents who are uncertain about the program or who are feeling uncomfortable about keeping their kids in it. I mean it’s just supporting each other. They build community. I think they really support one another and they help each other to understand the way the program design works and that it’s an acquisition process that it takes several years to really see the benefits of i . You can really see in the middle school where you can see the leaps and bounds of the program.
With respect to the school district, have they received much support for the dual bilingual program, or have you experienced some difficulty in promoting or continuing it?
RC: The program is 17 years old. We’re starting our 17th year starting this coming year. We’re very happy about that. I got to see the program start from the beginning in 2000. Actually it was in September of 1999. I came on board on January of 2000. At that time, we were working under a Title 7 grant, and we were able to start at with 1-2 kindergarten classes at each school. We had 3 elementary schools and so at that time we had a lot of support in terms of the grant; we had people at the district that were supporting and promoting the program. I was a resource teacher, and I had the parent’s involvement. So, we went out to recruit…which is to speak with parents and inform them about the program. After the grant ended which was in 2005, then the program had to sustain itself after that from about 2006 to now in terms of continuing and maintaining a strong program. So, it did despite—sometimes—a lack of resources which is often times the challenge of these types of programs have. Now, we have a board that supports the program. We have admin, a district office where some of them will be here tonight that are supportive as well. I think in the last 3 years (I would say) we’ve seen a lot of resources going into the program to build our libraries– to provide professional development to teachers and resources. Now, we have the program at 4 schools—2 elementary and 2 intermediate schools.
What other sources of funding have you requested to maintain the program?
RC: I think as far as funding we don’t have a particular grant that was just slated for the dual language program. We have our general funds that support it. We have our Title 1 federal monies that also offers support. Title 2 supports are professional development that comes from the district office to our teachers. We have Title 3 which supports our English learners and that could be part of our dual language program support, and of course our Local Control Accountability Program supports. That’s part of the general fund.
Out of curiosity, what’s the ratio between teacher and students in the dual language program and what cultures are represented in the school?
AC: That varies. In Kindergarten, it’s 24 to 1, and when you get up…It all depends on how many students you are able to enroll in kindergarten. So, when I was meeting with parents, last Spring we were able to get…it just worked out…we have 24 and 24, 25 which is our number, and you go up the grade levels, I think 1st grade has a little lower. They’re at 21. 2nd grade…they’re a little higher. 3rd grade has probably the highest number which is at 27. Then we have 2 4th grade classes then a 5th grade class which has 28.
RC: We have mostly Latino. I don’t have the breakdown. It’s in our Census report. But we have Armenian students. We have Asian. We have African-American, Filipino, and some Indian cultures.
AC: In the district, we have some 17 different languages. I would say the school has quite a few languages.
The Montebello USD Dual Language Immersion Program is an option for parents who are interested in enrolling their children. Principal Castro pointed out that the program is open to all students regardless of language background. Information can be accessed online on http://www.montebello.k12.ca.us . Simply look for the La Merced Elementary tab where visitors will be taken to the website detailing the program’s parameters and criteria. If you would like to contact Principal Castro to discuss the program, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can call her at (323) 721-5043.
As more information on bilingual education and biliteracy reach parents, the more popular programs like dual language immersion will become. The most recent development on the issue was the recent passage of Prop 58 where multilingual education funding was approved by a 72% margin reflecting California’s growing acceptance of bilingualism. More work is still required getting the word out on helping the nation become a more multicultural, multilingual society. California is the trend setter as in so many areas to jump start a movement that reaches across the coasts of a country where diversity and cosmopolitan sensibilities define numerous generations. Only through communication can diverse cultures reach common ground in order to achieve progress. In our current polarizing political reality, movements, such as the promotion of bilingualism and biliteracy, are so important in uniting our society so that as a nation we can advance and lead the world by example. Nothing less should be expected of us.