Courtesy of Rebecca Flores
Zoe Flores, in fourth grade in Montebello Unified, shows off books written in Spanish.
This story was updated Oct. 20, 2021 to clarify the requirement regarding English language instruction that began in 1998.

To enroll in bilingual education in most school districts in California, you have to attend class in person. It’s too difficult to find enough bilingual teachers and too hard to teach a new language online, most districts say.

But one district, Montebello Unified, near Los Angeles, is taking on those challenges and offering bilingual classes to independent study students.

That wasn’t the plan in the district at the start of the school year. In fact, the district began the year with only English classes online. But district officials reconsidered after parents pushed back.

Zoe Flores’ family was one of those that wanted dual-immersion independent study. Her parents are bilingual but speak to Zoe at home in English. Learning Spanish at school is important to Zoe’s parents because both sets of grandparents speak Spanish more than English, and the language she’s learned at school has helped her communicate and bond with them. It was especially helpful for Zoe to be able to communicate with her maternal grandmother, who had terminal lung cancer and died in July 2020.

Courtesy of Rebecca Flores

The Spanish that Zoe Flores learned in school helped her bond with her grandma.

“I’m so blessed for Zoe being able to do dual online and her bonding with her grandma,” said her mom, Rebecca Flores. “Her cousins kind of speak Spanish, but with Zoe being in the dual immersion, she knows the language. It definitely bonded them, and it’s just beautiful to see.”

Flores’ parents planned to send her to school in person this year, but as they watched Covid-19 cases increase, they panicked. Zoe, who is 9, has asthma. After consulting with her pediatrician, Zoe’s parents decided to enroll her in independent study because of the risk of her contracting Covid-19 at school.

“As parents, it was very difficult for us because we really wanted her to be back in person, but the numbers kept pouring up, and so we said we can’t,” Flores said.

For the first two weeks in August, Zoe had classes only in English for the first time since kindergarten. Fearing her daughter might lose some of her Spanish language skills, Flores pushed the district to offer its dual-immersion program online. So did many other parents.

“They felt that because the children have been enrolled in dual immersion for many years, to have a year of English, they felt it would put their students back in terms of learning the language,” said Kaivan Yuen, assistant superintendent of educational services at Montebello Unified.

In response, Montebello Unified decided to offer a few dual-immersion independent study classes to accommodate the students requesting it. Because the number of students choosing independent study was small, the district combined grades. Currently, there are 59 students enrolled in independent study dual immersion in the district, with three teachers. By comparison, there are 934 students enrolled in in-person dual immersion.

“Teachers are very appreciative of having this program. Parents don’t have to worry about their children missing out a year,” Yuen said.

Flores saw a change right away in Zoe. Recently, she learned about Ellen Ochoa, the first Latina to go into space.

“As we learned together, she said, ‘Mami, do you know this? Did you know she’s the first Latina astronaut?’” Flores said. “I just saw her flourishing, academically, but also personally, because the dual language is what she was used to since kinder.”

Yuen said Montebello Unified was already recruiting bilingual teachers for in-person classes, so they were able to find some teachers that way. Other teachers who were already teaching bilingual classes wanted to teach virtually this year.

Guadalupe Inda is one of Montebello Unified’s dual-immersion independent study teachers, teaching a combination kindergarten and first grade with 25 students in Spanish and English. The program gave Inda a chance to return to bilingual education. She taught bilingual classes for 12 years but began teaching only in English after California required English learners to be taught in English immersion classrooms in 1998. That law was repealed by voters in 2016. Now, not only is Inda back to teaching bilingual classes, but she’s also back in the neighborhood where she grew up.

“Being back in a community where they are valuing our language again, which is Spanish, was important. I wanted to be back in a community making sure that these kids have the experience where their language is being valued, and we also have kids who are not primary Spanish speakers,” Inda said.

In the independent study program, Inda said she relies on parents to be involved and help their children with their work at home. In a way, she said, that’s a blessing.

“The most important part in primary grade levels is having that connection with the community,” Inda said. “They’re holding me accountable as much as I’m holding them accountable.”

On the California Department of Education website, the department clarifies that “Bilingual, dual language, and other language acquisition programs can continue to be part of an independent study program. Independent study programs provide opportunities to deepen and capitalize on students’ use of the home language.”

But most districts in the state are not offering bilingual or dual language programs as part of their independent study programs. Other districts contacted by EdSource cited the lack of teachers with bilingual credentials and the difficulty of teaching language online as the main reasons for not offering independent-study dual-language instruction.

“Teaching core content areas in Spanish to non-Spanish speakers is challenging enough in person,” said Chris Eftychiou, spokesman for Long Beach Unified School District. “Unlike in many other districts, the vast majority of LBUSD dual-immersion students are not native Spanish speakers or English learners. To learn content (math, science and history) in Spanish via independent study is not a realistic expectation.”

Los Angeles Unified spokesperson Shannon Haber said the district is not offering dual-language immersion programs through its long-term independent study school, City of Angels, but is offering support for students to develop language through online programs such as Rosetta Stone.

“We believe dual immersion programs are most impactful through in-person instruction,” Haber said.

Yuen and Inda both acknowledged that teaching language virtually is a challenge because children need to interact both with their peers and with teachers in order to learn a new language. However, they said the previous year of distance learning appears to have given both students and teachers the experience and practice to make it work.

“The biggest surprise is that the students and the teachers are doing really well with this,” Yuen said.

Inda said she is working hard to give her students opportunities to speak and interact with each other, and she assigns lessons that require them to speak in complete sentences in their new language.

“I think kids are resilient and can pretty much do anything. They’ve proven it these past two years,” Inda said. “I haven’t had the experience of a child saying, ‘I can’t do it.’”

Montebello Unified is also offering after-school tutoring in Spanish, paying teachers extra to work after school to offer additional language help.

The decision of other districts not to offer bilingual programs in independent study is frustrating for parents like Los Angeles Unified dad Heinar Campos. He has two children, one in kindergarten and one in fourth grade. The family chose independent study because of concerns about the coronavirus, since their children are still too young to be vaccinated.

“First I was told, ‘Yeah, your kid is going to have a teacher who is bilingual, no problem.’ I kept pushing and asking and asking. I got, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah’ or ‘Email this person.’ Eventually I was told by City of Angels administrators that dual immersion classes were not going to be offered at all,” Campos said.

In independent study, Campos’ fourth grade son felt like he wasn’t learning anything.

“He was like, ‘Papi, we’re just reviewing the homework, and I have to teach the other kids how to use the equipment because the teacher’s clueless,’” about Chromebooks and other apps students use to complete their schoolwork online, Campos said.

In addition, Campos started noticing that his son was not pronouncing Spanish words as well as before. Campos wants both his children to be fluently bilingual, both to communicate with family in El Salvador and with other people around the world. So he decided to re-enroll his son in in-person school, despite his concerns about the virus.

“Even before he went to school, we found him dancing in the living room, like ‘I’m going back to school!’” Campos said. Now, he comes home and talks about everything he is learning. “He was reading a story in Spanish about this horse, and he was summarizing it. I see the difference.”

Campos believes that the district could offer dual-immersion programs online by moving some bilingual teachers into the independent study program, especially because some students who were previously in dual-immersion programs have chosen independent study.

“If they knew they were going to transfer kids into online, it’s just logical that they were going to need bilingual teachers too, since we have bilingual classes. They could do it if they wanted to,” Campos said.

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  1. Retired Reading Teacher 1 month ago1 month ago

    This is a very touching and inspiring story. Thank you for sharing. Zoe is fortunate to learn through independent study virtually. She especially fortunate because she probably did not have wear a mask since she was at home. As a former teacher who taught phonics and reading for 35 years in a high immigrant community, I have concerns for young English learners trying to learn English and phonics while wearing masks. … Read More

    This is a very touching and inspiring story. Thank you for sharing. Zoe is fortunate to learn through independent study virtually. She especially fortunate because she probably did not have wear a mask since she was at home.

    As a former teacher who taught phonics and reading for 35 years in a high immigrant community, I have concerns for young English learners trying to learn English and phonics while wearing masks. The masks muffle articulation and visually hinder the mouth as it is forming words and sounds. This impacts learning. Unmasked learners definitely have an advantage over masked learners when it comes to learning another language or learning how to read.