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News / Northwest

Washington schools want more students to be bilingual; is that goal possible?

By Jeanie Lindsay, The Seattle Times
Published: January 1, 2023, 2:31pm

SEATAC — In Hector Farias’ first period Spanish Language Arts class at Tyee High School, English isn’t entirely prohibited, but nearly all of what happens in this classroom is in Spanish.

The group of freshmen Farias is teaching are part of the SeaTac high school’s first group of dual-language students and, in some ways, could represent the future of education. Highline Public Schools wants all graduates to be bilingual and biliterate, and Farias and his class are part of that push.

“The No. 1 goal for me is that this program can take them outside of my classroom,” Farias said.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal shares that ambition, with a goal that any student in Washington could access a dual-language program by 2040. According to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, 110 schools across the state enrolled 35,450 students in dual-language programs last school year.

But there is still a long way to go.

Education leaders say these programs are a way to better support multilingual students, enhance language skills in English and a partner language, and provide students with opportunities to embrace their culture or explore future careers. But as Washington’s education and policy leaders push to implement more of these programs — and tout their benefits for students — school leaders say they need funding and policy support to do it.

How dual language works

Farias’ students always start class sitting in a circle of chairs with the tables pushed up against the walls. They play a version of musical chairs.

Farias calls out the word “mate.” It’s the name of the national drink of his home country, Argentina. His students get up and frantically search for a new seat to sit in. The student stuck in the middle is told three nice things by the rest of the class.

Then, each student turns to a neighbor and recites a poem — an offering of thanks for being there, and to acknowledge their time in the classroom.

“Tú eres mi otro yo. (You’re my other me.)

Si te hago daño a ti, (If I hurt you,)

Me hago daño a mí. (I am hurting myself.)

Si te amo y te respeto, (If I love and respect you,)

Me amo y me respeto. (I love and respect myself.)

No podemos dar lo que no tenemos.” (We can’t give what we don’t have)

The languages and structure of dual-language programs vary, but the idea is that students spend time learning in English and a partner language — not just for language classes, but in subjects like science, math and social studies.

Many schools divide up the time so students spend half their day in one language and then switch to the other, but the amount of time spent in the partner language can vary by the number of classes offered at their school or their grade level.

Some programs start students learning in the partner language 90% of the time, and gradually move to a half-and-half split. As students advance to the next grade level, their programs advance with them.

Highline Public Schools has 3,449 students enrolled in dual language, and a little more than half of them qualify for English learner services. The district’s first cohort of 39 dual-language students graduated in 2021, and 55 dual-language students graduated last year. So far, six elementary schools and six middle and high schools offer dual-language programs.

At Tyee, students in the dual-language program have two classes in Spanish at the start of the day — Spanish Language Arts and Contemporary Global Issues — followed by four in English.

Most of Washington’s dual-language schools choose Spanish as their partner language, but Highline also offers Vietnamese. Seattle Public Schools also offers Japanese and Mandarin Chinese. Bellevue School District also has a Mandarin program. A handful of schools in the state use tribal languages for their programs, like Makah, Lushootseed and Quileute.

Research shows dual-language programs and bilingualism can boost students’ test scores and brain development in the long term. In the Highline school district, 2017 data shows that most dual-language students from English-speaking or multilingual backgrounds outperformed their non-dual-language peers on state-required language arts exams.

But for many, the program isn’t just about academics.

Tyee freshman Idalia Urias said her mom told her that the program is an opportunity to become bilingual while staying connected to her culture. Her first language is Spanish, and the dual-language program makes her feel more at ease, offering her a safe space to learn.

“When I have classes in English I’m nervous because I think that I’m not going to understand,” she said. “Being here is more comfortable for me.”

David Solano also joined the dual-language program because of his parents, and said he has also learned things about his culture in Farias’ class that he didn’t know before.

“I also wanted to be here because it’s a way of practicing both your languages but still remembering where you came from and where your family came from,” he said.

Don Miller, an assistant principal at Tyee who also speaks Spanish, says embracing multilingual education is part of building a school structure that respects and recognizes students’ identity. Almost half of Tyee students are Hispanic or Latino, and a third of students in the school speak languages other than English.

In some cases that embrace is written on the walls, with announcements or directions written in English and Spanish. In the school’s Contemporary Global Issues class, languages like French and Arabic are featured on student-made posters all around the room.

“It is a place where they can create deeper relationships and a deeper sense of belonging — which we know, coming back from the pandemic, is more essential than it was prior,” Miller said.

Creation difficult for schools

There is more support than ever for schools to create or expand these programs based on the needs of their communities and with a clear vision.

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But it can be tough for schools to find enough staff to support the ongoing growth of dual language. To build up the pipeline of bilingual teachers, Miller wants to see more opportunities for multilingual people in the community to become educators, and for dual-language students to explore teaching careers.

It’s also important for schools and districts to put policies in writing to support and pay for their educators’ work, Miller said, adding that multilingual teachers often put extra time into their classes or elsewhere in the school.

The district offers a $1,000 annual stipend to its bilingual teachers, but finding enough people with the right language skills, teaching qualifications and interest in doing the work remains difficult.

“There’s a lot of people in the world that have the language skills we need, not a lot of them want to teach,” said Bernard Koontz, an executive director in the district that oversees dual-language programs.

Koontz said building a supportive work culture is part of the solution, and a bilingual teaching fellow partnership with Western Washington University has been key to staffing programs as they’ve expanded in the district. Some bilingual educators like Farias started out as paraeducators and eventually moved into lead teaching positions.

Education leaders also face ongoing misconceptions about dual-language’s impact on students. Some parents might worry that children in dual-language programs won’t make enough progress in reading and writing English, or in other core subjects like science and math.

But checking students’ content mastery and “bridging” their linguistic skills across subjects is a fundamental piece of dual-language programming, said Koontz.

While studies show that dual-language students perform well academically on average, the current patchwork of dual-language options across school systems means some students could miss out or fall behind.

If a student doesn’t start in a dual-language program early enough, they may not be able to enroll in one, said Marilyn Bergevin, Wapato School District’s special programs director. Bergevin is in the midst of developing a dual-language program in the district. She added that young dual-language students who might move to a school that doesn’t offer a dual-language program could be behind in their English skills if they spent more time learning in a partner language early on.

It’s a scenario that would become less likely over the next decade if state superintendent Reykdal’s recent proposal comes to fruition. Reykdal announced a legislative ask in August for lawmakers to allocate $18.9 million in the state’s next two-year budget to support statewide expansion of dual-language. Reykdal’s plan would increase the number of bilingual teacher preparation programs, and fund supplemental pay stipends for multilingual teachers and paraeducators.

For now, schools are finding their own ways to continue elevating their dual-language programs, educators and students. Farias, who is in his first year at Tyee, is getting extra support from the administrators at the school. And even though it takes time to balance his dual-language workload with the demands of other classes he teaches, he says it doesn’t really feel like work.

“I love what I do,” he said.