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 bill, authored 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.”
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.”