Discover the advantages of dual language programs in district schools and how they promote bilingualism and diversity in education.

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Outdoor gardening at Mundo Verde’s Cook Campus (30 P St. NW). The school emphasizes experiential learning, biliteracy and sustainability. Courtesy: Mundo Verde PCS.

By Elizabeth O’Gorek

Daphane Womack does not speak Spanish fluently, but her children do. Every day, Gloria (8) and Gabriel (5) attend school at Tyler ES (1001 G St. SE, soon to be renamed Shirley Chisholm Elementary). They have been at Tyler since 2018, when Gloria entered prek3.

Womack said the family chose Tyler because it was their neighborhood school, but also because it offered a bilingual program. She and her husband have put in the effort to help their children succeed.

“I want them to know that if we don’t know, we’re going to look it up, find the answer, and that we’re learning together,” Womack said.

Berenice Pernalete, Director of Innovation for Mundo Verde’s Instituto, speaks with teachers. Courtesy: Mundo Verde PCS

When Gloria started the bilingual program five years ago at Tyler, it was a “strand” program—a cohort of bilingual students in an English-dominant school. But starting in 2023-24, the school will begin its transition to a whole school Bilingual-
Arts program.

“My sense is that now there is more openness and excitement about the bilingual arts program,” Tyler Principal Jasmine Brann says, “but I will also say that people want to see that it is going to work. It is kind of like, “Show me. Prove to us that it is going to be successful for all kids.”

The proof is out there. Experts say that bilingual education improves executive function, increases academic achievement, and increases mental flexibility. The American Councils for International Education (ACIE) says that recent evidence points to a renewed interest in dual language immersion.

Performance at the 2022 Tyler Winter Showcase. In 2023-24, Tyler will transition to a whole school integrated bilingual arts program. Photo: Tyler PTA

But some parents are concerned that learning in a new language will affect their child’s academic performance. They worry that their children will be overwhelmed by immersion. They wonder if a second language will impact fluency in English, or if academic performance will suffer. And many wonder, how will they, the parents, understand what is going on?

Public Access in the District

Many District residents have access to free dual-language (DL) education. 22 of the District’s public or public charter schools offer dual-language or immersion programs. According to Elizabeth Ross, Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning, those schools serve about 9,000 students, or about ten percent of the public school population. 17 are elementary schools; 10 of those are public charters.

That may seem like a small portion of students served overall, but those numbers are expected to grow rapidly. Enrollment in dual language programs nearly doubled between the 2015-16 and 2019-2020 school years. OSSE estimates that 4,600 more students will enroll in DL programs by the 2024-25 school year, so a 600-seat expansion is planned for DL programs. The programs are concentrated near where they originated in the 1970s, when DC organized the first language programming as a tool to help native Hispanic speakers newly-arrived in neighborhoods like Adams Morgan and Mount Pleasant.

That history has resulted in a concentration of schools offering DL programming in the District’s traditionally Hispanic neighborhoods, in near Northwest in Wards 1, 4 and 5. But in the past twenty years, interest in language learning has grown throughout the District, especially among White native English-speakers.

The 2023 Tyler Spelling Bee contestants. Courtesy: Tyler PTA

Multiculturalism, Multilingualism

The goals of dual language learning are to develop literacy in more than one language, proficiency in academic subjects, and cross-cultural awareness. Multiculturalism and multilingualism are the ideal starting points for a DL school community, according to Berenice Pernalete, Director of Innovation for Mundo Verde’s Instituto, a professional development program open to any teacher interested in developing DL program teaching skills.

Pernalete said the ideal for bilingual schools is to have an even number English learners (ELs) and learners of the other language integrated in the school. That way, students help one another improve skills in a first language as well as in learning a second language.

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