As Gov. Gavin Newsom’s team pulls together the components of the Master Plan for Early Education and Care, considers top priorities for the proposed California Department of Early Childhood Development, and continues to push for investments in our educator workforce, it should consider this fundamental fact: Today, 60 percent of all California children, birth to 5-years-old, come from homes where their families speak one or more languages other than English.
One critical component of the governor’s strategies should be to lay a strong foundation for our state’s youngest English/dual-language learners so they can be better prepared for later grades. This new master plan and all investments must put these children at the heart of our educational systems, or we risk leaving a generation of Californians unprepared to reach their full potential.
We must go big, be bold and build a system appropriate for the children that are the future of our state.
Fortunately, we have good models to guide the development of the master plan and investments in addressing English/dual language learners who have historically been underserved.
For the past 12 years, my organization, Sobrato Early Academic Language, or SEAL, has been working with early childhood educators and school leaders from more than 130 preschool classrooms across the state (and hundreds of elementary schools as well) to implement a powerful English learner/dual language learner-focused approach to education, rooted at the intersection of research-based practice and educational equity.
We would be wise to heed some lessons from that experience:
Children’s language, culture and identity matter. Preschool classrooms need an explicit focus on developing children’s home languages along with English, thus setting the foundation for a pathway to bilingualism, which will connect them to their families and heritage and will confer economic and social benefits later in life.
Language develops best in the context of interacting with and learning about the world, building from children’s innate curiosity. This means building classrooms where children explore the world through the integration of science, social studies and the arts with language development.
Quality early education for a state as diverse as California has to recognize and respond to the languages and cultures of the children. School environments that welcome and invite them to bring their cultural and language assets to the classroom result in richer learning for all students, stronger engagement, healthier identities and stronger academic outcomes.
Teachers are key. They need the skills and support to understand how to build these kinds of learning experiences. And they need to be treated as professionals. There is no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach. Rather, teachers need to be supported to gain knowledge about dual-language development, to learn strategies for how to ensure children can participate fully regardless of their language proficiency and to understand how to shape curriculum and instruction to build rich, dual-language competencies.
This is why the governor’s intention to invest in the educator workforce is so crucial — as long as what teachers are learning and developing really addresses the children in front of them.
Families are essential partners. Strong partnerships between families and schools are needed to support children’s learning and healthy identity development. Bringing families in as partners in their children’s learning and emphasizing their role in supporting home language and culture, are essential elements of effective schooling for English learners/dual-language learners. This requires making a plan to include families and working to execute it.
In the preschool classrooms across the state where my organization has worked, we have seen again and again that children thrive when there is an explicit focus on prioritizing the needs of English/dual-language learners through relevant and rigorous curriculum, instructional strategies that foster collaboration and inquiry and school communities that affirm the languages and cultures students bring to the classroom. Principals report a visible difference.
Superintendents see district-wide culture changes. And English learners/dual-language learners catch up or surpass their peers, with significant gains in language, literacy and cognition, and have a notable impact on family literacy.
Gov. Newsom is on the right track with a steadfast focus on early childhood education. But unless these investments prioritize the needs of some of the most vulnerable children in our state, and prepare educators to meet the needs of our culturally and linguistically diverse communities, we may find that investments only perpetuate existing gaps and fail to develop a promising resource for our state.
We can create engaging, joyful and rigorous learning in classrooms across California for all students, but to do so we must design an education system that embraces and leverages the diverse cultural and linguistic assets of our students.
Anya Hurwitz is the executive director of SEAL, a research-based model and organization that works to help schools and districts prioritize the needs of their youngest English/dual language learners.