With a growing number of parents embracing the value of their children learning a second language, nine more dual immersion programs are coming to L.A. Unified when schools open next week. Among the additions are one in Armenian and another in Arabic, giving the district 65 such programs, a 25 percent increase over the last three years.

As an effort to teach children to read and write, not just speak, in two languages — what educators call bi-literacy — the increase is part of a larger expansion taking place across California, where the number of schools offering similar programs exceeds 400, more than quadrupling over the last decade, according to Jan Gustafson Corea, chief executive officer of the California Association for Bi-Lingual Education. The growth has come despite the passage of a highly controversial initiative nearly two decades ago, Proposition 227, a measure promoted by businessman Ron Unz and supported by then-Gov. Pete Wilson that discourages districts from creating dual language programs.

In dual language immersion classes, children who are native English speakers and native speakers of another language are taught all subjects in both languages, with the goal of improving academic achievement and proficiency in both languages. The classes differ from traditional foreign language classes in which the sole focus is learning a second language. 

And now, the steady growth of dual immersion has a chance to accelerate: A November ballot measure, Proposition 58, seeks to revise the California education code, overturning key parts of Prop. 227 to make it easier for schools to create these programs.

Prop. 58 arises out of a billauthored by Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), that was approved by the Legislature in 2014 and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown. It requires voter approval because it would replace Prop. 227, which effectively banned bilingual education by requiring children who are not proficient in English to learn it in an English-only setting. It also limited the amount of time children could be in these special English classes before transferring to regular classes.

Prop. 227 allowed for dual immersion programs only in response to a request by at least 20 parents at a school and the granting of a waiver by the school district. Prop. 58 would remove those barriers, giving schools flexibility to design programs tailored to the needs of parents and their children.

“It breaks down barriers and sends a signal that we’re joining the 21st century and fighting the xenophobic kind of attitude we see from people who want to return to a world that doesn’t exist anymore,” said Patricia Gándara, a research professor of education at UCLA.

Supporters of bilingual education view the dual immersion programs as more than just an effort to help children attain fluency and literacy in a second language, which educators emphasize is a valuable asset for a wide range of jobs. Experts say they contribute to a greater understanding and appreciation for children from different backgrounds.

“It breaks down barriers and sends a signal that we’re joining the 21st century and fighting the xenophobic kind of attitude we see from people who want to return to a world that doesn’t exist anymore,” said Patricia Gándara, a research professor of education at UCLA who has written widely on language learning.

The vast majority of California’s dual language immersion programs in non-charter district schools serve children from families where Spanish is spoken at home, according to Arthur Chou, managing director of duallanguageschools.org, an online organization that connects parents with neighborhood dual language schools or programs. The higher concentration of Spanish is reflected in L.A. Unified, which opens this year with 51 programs in Spanish, nine in Korean, three in Mandarin and the two new ones, in Armenian and Arabic. Most of the programs start in kindergarten.

Given the freedom to design their own approach, schools have adopted various models, with some splitting instruction 50-50 in English and a second language while others feature instruction in the non-English language 70, 80, even 90 percent of the time.

Richard Guillen, principal of Mountain View Elementary School in Tujunga, a Los Angeles suburb, said the Armenian program starting in his school next week with a kindergarten class was created to satisfy a growing population of Armenians in the area and to draw students who might otherwise enroll in Armenian programs offered in the neighboring districts of Burbank and Glendale. The families of some children speak English at home; others speak Armenian.

“Many of the families have assimilated and embraced English, and their culture is more Americanized,” Guillen said. “This is one way to give children a chance to get back to their roots and culture, preserving their native language.”

The Arabic/English program is starting next week for a kindergarten class at the Elizabeth Learning Center, an L.A. Unified K-12 school in Cudahy, another L.A. suburb. Damian Lenon, the principal, said the student population is “99 percent Hispanic” but offering Arabic to service a growing Arabic population in the area “promotes diversity, multiculturalism and cooperation among groups.” No matter what language these children speak at home, they will use English and Arabic in the classroom, taught by a native Arabic speaker. 

“Groups have a chance to learn more from each other, gain new perspectives of each other,” said Hilda Maldonado, executive director of L.A. Unified’s Multilingual and Multicultural Education Department. “It’s a win-win for both communities.”

Gándara has studied issues related to dual immersion programs for years. She said it holds societal benefits well beyond building bridges to another culture. Chief among them is helping a child sustain ties to parents and older family members who primarily speak in their native language.

“As a child picks up English, it begins a separation,” she said. “Authority breaks down in the home; that’s reflected in the school. A child tells the parents, ‘You don’t understand.’ The parents are at a disadvantage.”

Patricia Gándara

UCLA

Patricia Gándara, research professor of education at UCLA.

Further, she said, research has shown that students who move from being only speaking a second language to reading and writing in it are more likely to attend a four-year college.

To that end, Maldonado said, dual language immersion courses in middle and high school, no matter the subject taught, can help students fulfill one of their “A-G” requirements — two years of a foreign language — for admission to University of California and California State University schools.

Gándara and other experts agree that passage of Prop. 58 would accelerate the development of more immersion programs. But there is one potential obstacle that could prevent that from happening. 

By slowing the growth of immersion programs, Prop. 227 reduced the pool of instructors qualified to teach in a dual language setting, particularly in non-language subjects, like history and science.

“Prop. 227 dried up our supply,” Gándara said. “For almost 20 years, we’ve gone fallow. There’s a shortage of people who can do this.”

A campaign is underway to build public support for Prop. 58. Its supporters include the California teachers unions, the state Democratic party, Gov. Brown and dozens of other state and local officials. A poll conducted by the campaign in late June and shared with EdSource found that 69 percent of “likely” voters in November support the initiative, including majorities among Democrats (74 percent), independents (77 percent) and Republicans (57 percent). 

“There’s tremendous support for this,” said Gándara, hopeful of passage but pointing out the next challenge: Creating the financial support and training opportunities to expand the number of qualified teachers.

“If it passes,” she said of Prop. 58, “we’ll need another bill.” 

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  1. Gabriel Medel 6 months ago6 months ago

    Dear Dr. Gándara, parents strongly support that initiative. Prop 27 killed the education of LEP students, and nobody has spoken for their rights. This is a large group of parent acting to support the concept of bilingual education or bilingual educators for our schools.

  2. Paul Muench 7 months ago7 months ago

    What perecentage of students enrolled in existing dual language immersion programs are learning a language unrelated to their ethnicity? That number seems to be a better indicator of real interest in learning about the world. Otherwise we just have two groups of people with different agendas about how to get back to ones roots. The supporters of 227 wanting to get back to an English speaking curriculum that was largely instituted in … Read More

    What perecentage of students enrolled in existing dual language immersion programs are learning a language unrelated to their ethnicity? That number seems to be a better indicator of real interest in learning about the world. Otherwise we just have two groups of people with different agendas about how to get back to ones roots. The supporters of 227 wanting to get back to an English speaking curriculum that was largely instituted in the mid 20th century and the supporters of 58 wanting to get back to the language of their ancestors. This is politics so finding irony is neither too hard nor surprising.

  3. Jonathan Raymond 7 months ago7 months ago

    Amen! This can provide school districts with powerful incentives to meet the growing demands and interests of children and families. In Sacramento we started immersion programs in Mandarin, Cantonese, and the first Hmong immersion program in the State of California. Very quickly these classes and programs had waiting lists – further indication of their value. For urban school districts that are losing families these programs can help keep and attract families and children.

  4. Wayne Bishop 7 months ago7 months ago

    "In dual language immersion classes, children who are native English speakers and native speakers of another language are taught all subjects in both languages" Although true in a sense, this is highly misleading. Real dual immersion makes sure the "immersion" really is immersion and it works beautifully from Day 1 of kindergarten forward. Prop 227 sought to end the ed school insanity across California and the nation of starting in Spanish and gradually "transitioning" … Read More

    “In dual language immersion classes, children who are native English speakers and native speakers of another language are taught all subjects in both languages”

    Although true in a sense, this is highly misleading. Real dual immersion makes sure the “immersion” really is immersion and it works beautifully from Day 1 of kindergarten forward. Prop 227 sought to end the ed school insanity across California and the nation of starting in Spanish and gradually “transitioning” to academically competent English along with Spanish. Problem? At best, the English comes out highly accented and reality is most never make the complete transition all the way through high school. Low socioeconomic, Hispanic students are denied a realistic opportunity for upward mobility through education – the promise we offer but too often deny.

    I am highly supportive of the real thing – decades ago, my 2 sons were in dual immersion schools in Mexico for upwards of 2 years and are fluent to this day. Now 2 of my grandchildren are in a dual immersion Chinese charter school in Massachusetts and are absolutely fluent in verbal Mandarin and making strong progress toward full academic competence (along with English, of course).

    There are 2 major problems with doing everything simultaneously. The most obvious, is the time it takes to say lots of stuff twice but the most serious is remaining too heavily in the child’s home language (read Spanish) at the expense of appropriate progress in English. There are 2 ways to avoid this – week-by-week (or some such) – in one language all day for everything and then the other language. More commonly (and our experience in both Mexico and Massachusetts) is some subjects in English and the other subjects in the other language. For example, my older son in Mexico was in a bilingual “prepa” (prep school for college the following year). his English and mathematics were in English but biology and psychology were completely in Spanish with college-level tomes for textbooks and regular written assignments culminating in lengthy term papers. Tough? Sure, but decades later he remains fluent doing legal work in Spanish as well as English and the younger son can still function competently in a Spanish-speaking environment. Eventual opportunities for my grandchildren will be great.

    Bottom line? Prop 227 was an attempt to correct a systemic lie that remains alive and well. Come Fall, California will even be doing it legally again.

  5. Ed McIntyre 7 months ago7 months ago

    All the positive comments above are true and each benefit is important for a variety of reasons. But the two most important benefit that long term research from Kathryn Lindholm-Leary, Wayne Thomas, Virginia Collier and others clearly demonstrate in the dramatic increase is #1. cognitive development and #2 student engagement. Students in Dual Language Instruction become more intelligent, have better memories and think faster. Why? Because they are in a more rigorous and … Read More

    All the positive comments above are true and each benefit is important for a variety of reasons. But the two most important benefit that long term research from Kathryn Lindholm-Leary, Wayne Thomas, Virginia Collier and others clearly demonstrate in the dramatic increase is #1. cognitive development and #2 student engagement.
    Students in Dual Language Instruction become more intelligent, have better memories and think faster. Why? Because they are in a more rigorous and stimulating environment. Their brains are challenged at an early age and become more responsive to varied stimulus and content and have to decode in two languages. Students who matriculate don’t even know how they learned their non-home language because the 0-6 year old brain acquires language through exposure.
    And then there is the student engagement piece. Students know they are in a more stimulating and rigorous environment and they feel good about themselves. Of course they become more engaged. Studies show DLI student far out perform their counterparts academically, can acquire a third language more easily, attend school at higher rates, have fewer discipline problems. A DLI program, using the most effective model with strong school, parent and community support is the most powerful and exciting educational model we have in K-12 education.
    It is unfortunate that we are saddled with well meaning but uninformed leaders (legislative and community) mandates that not only fail our children and community, but end up forcing schools to waste huge sums of tax dollars trying to comply or work around laws, mandates and policies that are not ground in sound and proven educational methods. Professor Gandara is correct in that we have a demand that our universities cannot meet for qualified DLI instructors that will become exacerbated as time goes on and we need to mobilize to meet that demand.