Bilingual education gets boost


A stark achievement gap between white and Latino students has prompted Shoreline Unified School District to launch an investigation into the creation of a Spanish and English dual-language immersion program. The hope among administrators is that such a program could re-engage and empower English-learners, while creating a more integrated school environment.

“I could tell that we’re not that good,” Daniel Lopez, a former Tomales High student, told the Light in March of his Latino peers at the high school. “It’s boring. Nothing really grabs your attention there, so why even try?”

The California Department of Education’s Adequate Yearly Progress report reflects that sense of apathy among Latinos in the district. In 2011, 88 percent of white students were proficient in English and 80 percent were proficient in math. Latino students, who in West Marin are also more likely to be economically disadvantaged and studying English as a second language, or come from a Spanish-only home, were just 47 percent proficient in English and 48 percent proficient in math.

More than ten years since voters eliminated most bilingual programs in California, dual-language immersion programs are springing up to fill a hole left gaping where other programs failed. While bilingual education sought primarily to help immigrant children learn English and do schoolwork with their English-speaking peers, dual-language education — in which all students work in both languages — is being hailed as a boon for all involved.

Last year, The Los Angeles Times reported that a growing body of research indicated that learning to read in their primary languages helps students become more fluent in English. And while bilingual education was often perceived as a public handout to immigrant families alone, dual programs teach a second language to native-born American children as well. Now some West Marin parents are hoping their kids can get in on the action.

The decision to investigate a dual program at Shoreline was made at last week’s school board meeting, amid broader discussions of how to better serve West Marin’s Spanish-speaking community. The district, which is more than 50 percent Latino, has about one third of its student body taking English as a second language.

“We have a pretty significant achievement gap,” board member Kegan Stedwell said, “and English language learners aren’t exactly performing as well as they could.” Ms. Stedwell will lead a new task force charged with evaluating the feasibility of a dual program.
Interest in dual immersion has been mounting over the past year, and school officials and teachers have been looking for alternative solutions to the status quo. “Dual immersion is a fantastic example of something that’s working [elsewhere], and has been around,” Ms. Stedwell said.

Parent and Inverness resident Alex Porrata, who is raising two children in a bilingual home, said there has been talk of starting a dual-immersion program since last year. Along with Ms. Stedwell, Ms. Porrata sits on the task force and will help appoint other task-force members.

Ms. Porrata, who studied the method at Columbia University Teacher’s College, said students in dual language immersion environments perform better in all subjects, regardless of whether they began school speaking the primarily language or the target language. She says the method is a better way to teach and empower English learners, and also gives native English-speaking children a chance to boost academic achievement while learning bilingualism and biculturalism.

“This is most effective for young children. There is significant research showing that if a child remains in a dual-language program through eighth grade, they will equal or exceed the performance of their peers,” Ms. Porrata said. “Except they do it in two languages!”

The program Ms. Porrata wants to help implement at West Marin School is designed to integrate native English speakers with native Spanish speakers beginning in kindergarten. Students learn a second language by receiving lessons in Spanish and English; the second language is used for instruction in various subjects instead of just as a separate class. In the beginning, the coursework is balanced at just ten percent

Spanish and 90 percent English, with the languages gaining parity by increments until students are in fifth grade.  

Research shows that positive cognitive gains are associated with learning a second language in childhood, and that the brain is most susceptible to learning language before the age of eight. Ms. Porrata said bilingualism has been shown to facilitate intellectual growth, promote stronger math skills and enhance critical thinking. It also helps with self-esteem.

“In a dual-immersion program, all the students are second language learners,” she said, “ and they can become language models for each other.” Furthermore, she said the programs helped preserve and celebrate cultural heritage.  

The first steps the task force will take include conducting a feasibility study for the district and assessing what resources it already has — such as certified bilingual teachers — as well as the level of interest from parents in such a program.

“We’ll be collectively and creatively thinking about which campus would be most appropriate for the program,” she said. Wherever it may be tried, the program would go along with a parallel curriculum, she said, offering the more traditional, English-only format, for parents who prefer to opt out.

“I think it’s important to say that besides some basic benefits of dual immersion, what really resonates for many in West Marin is that this is an equity issue,” Ms. Porrata said. “Students need to be able to mix more and create lifelong relationships. That’s the goal. Currently, what I’m afraid of, and why I wouldn’t register my daughter for Shoreline, is that children are segregated for their English instruction. And I’m not comfortable with kids being separated along racial and ethnic lines.”

Ms. Porrata said she expected the first, exploratory phase to last around three months, and parents could expect the dual-immersion option to be available by next fall. The process has been possible in part through a grant from the Marin Community Foundation.

“If it’s feasible then the district could potentially move forward,” Ms. Porrata said. “But if it’s not feasible and we don’t have the interest, the space, the materials or enough forward movement—then it won’t happen.