Bilingual education can be an asset for white students but a deficit for immigrants

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Caridad Hescock, 15, raises her hand at the Margarita Muñiz Academy in Boston, where she takes classes in Spanish as well as English. Photo by Tara García Mathewson for The Hechinger Report

Caridad Hescock, 15, raises her hand at the Margarita Muñiz Academy in Boston, where she takes classes in Spanish as well as English. Photo by Tara García Mathewson for The Hechinger Report

Katie Cardamone teaches second grade in the Mendon-Upton Regional School District, about 40 miles southwest of Boston. Barely 1 percent of Mendon’s population is Latino and about 2 percent of Upton’s is, but Cardamone teaches her entire class in Spanish. According to Cardamone, about 250 predominantly white families across the district have signed their children up for the immersion program, recognizing the value of becoming bilingual and of starting the process in kindergarten.

In the Austin Independent School District in Texas, administrators recognize that same value for their native Spanish speakers who enter the public schools without English fluency. In 50 elementary schools, according to district officials, these students now take classes in Spanish and English with an ultimate goal of achieving academic proficiency in both languages by middle school.

Both programs aim to make students fully bilingual. Both feature instruction in two languages. But a program like Austin’s would be against the law in Massachusetts. A 2002 ballot initiative, supported by 61 percent of voters, made English-only instruction mandatory for students who need to learn the language (unless they get a special waiver). The law resulting from the ballot initiative makes an exception for programs that teach in two languages — but only if they serve native English speakers.

“The more languages I learn, the better off I’ll be.” Patricia Cordero, Margarita Muñiz Academy

David Nieto, a former assistant director of the Massachusetts Office of English Language Acquisition and Academic Achievement and current executive director of the BUENO Center for Multicultural Education at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s School of Education, said the law blocks one of the most effective ways to help kids who speak other languages excel in school and is fundamentally unjust.

“That’s a blatant case of inequity and how barriers are imposed on our students,” Nieto said.

Related: English one day, Español the next: Dual-language learning expands with a South Bronx school as a model

California, Arizona and New Hampshire are the only other states in the nation to mandate English-only instruction, but when California voters go to the polls today to select the next president, they may also give schools more flexibility to open bilingual programs. Reform advocates in Massachusetts have been lobbying the legislature to make the same changes to their law, and this year they believe they have a chance.

Sen. Sal DiDomenico, chief sponsor of a bill that would make these changes, is optimistic because he believes he has data on his side. Overall, English learners in Massachusetts have consistently performed significantly worse than their peers who entered school speaking English, and depending on grade level, that gap has either stayed the same or gotten worse since 2002, when the English-only law went into effect. Because the tests that measure student achievement are in English, it is difficult to say whether a low-scoring English-learning student lacks content knowledge or merely language skills, but DiDomenico ties the achievement gap directly to the 2002 ballot initiative.

“I just think the data is compelling now,” DiDomenico said, adding that some people may have thought the original English-only mandate sounded good on paper back in 2002, but in practice it has not worked. “If it has not been successful, it is our responsibility as a legislative body to correct that.”

Learning English, forgetting Spanish

Priscilla Pimentel brought her daughter, Claudette Bautista, to Boston from the Dominican Republic when the girl was 5 years old. Spanish is Claudette’s first language, and Pimentel wanted to help ease her transition to a new school and a new life. She found the Maurice J. Tobin School on the city’s southwest side in a Latino neighborhood and thought the relatively high number of Spanish-speaking teachers would provide a helpful cushion, even though her daughter would be learning entirely in English.

With so much focus on English, however, Claudette stopped speaking her native language.

“She picked up English here, but then she didn’t know Spanish,” Pimentel said. “Knowing that her family back home doesn’t speak English, not all of them, I had to make sure she didn’t forget about the Spanish.”

Pimentel started investigating her options, looking for supplemental instruction for Claudette, and another parent told her about the Margarita Muñiz Academy.

In Boston Public Schools, Superintendent Tommy Chang has placed an emphasis on culturally and linguistically inclusive schools. Nearly half of BPS students first learned a language other than English, with more than 75 languages represented across the city’s schools. Spanish is the most common and four elementary schools offer programs in Spanish and English that aim to make all students proficient in reading, writing and speaking both languages. Their programs have not run afoul of the 2002 law because their model is designed for native English speakers and native Spanish speakers to learn each other’s languages together. The same is true of the Muñiz Academy, which opened in 2012 as the city’s first such high school. While it has drawn a predominantly Latino student population, only half of current students are considered English learners. The rest only speak English or are already bilingual.

When Pimentel heard about Muñiz, she put her daughter on the waiting list immediately and is grateful she was able to get in. Now Claudette is a senior whose academic proficiency in both languages will ensure she can communicate with her relatives in the Dominican Republic and more.

Frances Esparza, assistant superintendent of the Office of English Language Learners in Boston, says English learners participating in dual-language programs do better academically than their peers in English immersion and, in some cases, better than their native English-speaking peers.

“With dual language, that is something that is inherent within the programs,” Esparza said. “These students are going to be able to master cognitively demanding tasks at a faster rate than a general monolingual student.”

Before the English-only instruction bill’s passage in 2002, the most common way schools served students learning English was through a program called transitional bilingual education. The goal of the program was ultimately for students to learn English, but a common language with teachers allowed them to learn at least some of their academic content in a language they understood along the way. Now, state officials say, approximately 95 percent of these students are placed in “sheltered English immersion” programs, or English-only classrooms.

Phyllis Hardy, director of advocacy and extension activities for the Massachusetts Association for Bilingual Education, said programs like the one in Austin, Texas, which build on students’ proficiencies in their native languages while teaching them English, are too much like transitional bilingual education to be accepted in Massachusetts under the current law.

Bob Measel, assistant director of the Massachusetts Office of English Language Acquisition and Academic Achievement, confirmed that the 2002 law’s exception for dual-language programs does not extend to programs exclusively serving English learners. For Massachusetts schools to open such a program, they would have to be responding to demand from at least 20 families who want to opt out of the English-only services.

The small number of schools applying for waivers to open such alternative programs might suggest there’s little demand for bilingual education among immigrant parents. That’s the argument Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz — who crafted the original mandate — has used to oppose California’s latest ballot initiative to expand bilingual education. Supporters of bilingual education, however, say these numbers are proof only that the waiver process is overly cumbersome.

The demand for new dual-language programs in many parts of the country is being driven by white, middle-class English-speakers. Nieto, executive director of the BUENO Center, said that’s because these families recognize the advantage of being bilingual and have the resources to pressure districts to open such programs. Students who don’t speak English often do not have people pushing for opportunities for them to maintain their native languages.

Nieto said that’s one reason why the English-only mandate was able to pass in Massachusetts. He said it’s important to remember that the 2002 ballot initiative was decided by the voting public, not a cohort of education experts.

“It seems common sense to say students learn English better and faster if they’re in English immersion,” Nieto said. “Extensive research shows that is not right. But the general population does not know about this.”

In fact, the same year that Massachusetts voters approved the English-only instruction law, George Mason University professors Wayne Thomas and Virginia Collier released a study comparing the long-term achievement of English learners across three instructional models: ones that had instruction in English only, ones that allowed teachers to use students’ native languages on the path toward learning English and ones that prized bilingualism in the long term. Thomas and Collier found the long-term bilingualism model was the only one of the three to close the achievement gap between English-learning students and their native English-speaking peers. Since then, other studies have confirmed their findings and brain research has shown the wide-ranging benefits of being bilingual.

Hardy, at the Massachusetts Association for Bilingual Education, is in her fourth legislative cycle lobbying for a bill that would change the English-only law. For the first time, both chambers of the state legislature have approved such a bill and unanimously. But even though no one is actively opposing either bill, there are significant differences between the two and only a small window of time to reconcile them before the next legislative session begins in January.

Approximately 95 percent of Massachusetts’ English-learning students are placed in English-only classrooms.

Already fearing that a compromise bill won’t pass this year, Hardy is looking west for a playbook to win the fight in Massachusetts eventually.

In California, Shelly Spiegel-Coleman is executive director of Californians Together, an advocacy organization focused on improving educational opportunities for students learning English. It successfully advocated for the state’s Seal of Biliteracy program, which awards eligible graduates a special designation on their high school diplomas if they master two languages, and has been a major proponent of the Yes on Proposition 58 campaign, which would effectively overturn California’s ban on bilingual education, which passed as Proposition 227 in 1998.
Spiegel-Coleman said the current campaign has won endorsements from California chambers of commerce as well as associations representing doctors, lawyers and firefighters, among others.

Related: Bilingual battle brewing in California … again

“None of these people last time came out opposing Prop 227,” Spiegel-Coleman said, “but this time I think this whole issue of looking at bilingual graduates and students who have facility in multiple languages as people who add to our economy and make a difference in our community is really being recognized by a broad base of support.”

Spiegel-Coleman said that the Seal of Biliteracy has helped shift the culture in the state so more people recognize the benefits of offering instruction in more than one language.

Hardy hopes that Massachusetts’ own nascent Seal of Biliteracy program will help her find more allies to push a new bill in 2017. While still not officially sanctioned by the state, eight school districts debuted the seal last spring and more than 300 students received it, including 46 from the Muñiz Academy, according to headmaster Dania Vázquez.

Muñiz sophomore Patricia Cordero, 15, attended a dual-language elementary school in Washington, D.C., before moving to Boston, and Spanish has always been a part of her life, socially and academically. She is already thinking about other languages she hopes to master — French, Arabic and Italian.

“The more languages I learn, the better off I’ll be,” Cordero said.

Related: Schools that teach in two languages foster integration — so how come so many families can’t find programs?

While virtually every Muñiz student can recite the workforce benefits bilingualism might bring them, Vázquez sees her school as providing more than that.

She describes Muñiz as having an asset-based approach and philosophy, in direct opposition to the English-only programs otherwise required by the state. In those programs, Vázquez said, educators take something away, replacing a first language with English. At Muñiz, they add a new one.

During an election season that has exposed major rifts along racial and ethnic lines, with Hispanic immigrants in particular being vilified by a major-party candidate, celebrating Spanish is a victory of its own.

“We talk about Muñiz Academy as a revolution,” Vázquez said. “We talk about our existence as an act of social justice.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about immigration.

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