Dual language education for the youngest learners could help save LA Unified, committee is told
Mike Szymanski | January 24, 2017
Some LA Unified officials see teaching dual language at an early age as a way to save the district, which is faced with educating the largest English learner population in the nation.
With speakers that included a program director from Sacramento, parents from dual language schools and school administrators from the superintendent’s office, the Early Childhood Education and Parent Engagement Committee on Tuesday discussed the progress of dual language education at LA Unified.
“This is a great benefit to LAUSD, it is your future,” said Karrie Roy, a parent center representative for Grand View Elementary School in Mar Vista. “You need to expand what we are doing. This is a way to save LAUSD.”
Roy noted that her school has had a dual English-Spanish immersion program for 27 years and pre-kindergarten dual language classes for the past decade.
“We are one of the district’s best-kept secrets, and this has boosted our enrollment and helped our retention,” Roy said. “Parents bring their children from all over and want to enroll. Some of the kids are still in diapers and are too young to come to school, but the parents want them to join. For me personally, as a gringa, it’s important for me and my children to understand other languages.”
LA Unified has 31 elementary and middle schools with dual language programs for Spanish, Korean and Mandarin, and now Armenian, which is new this year and in two schools, said Hilda Maldonado, executive director of the Multilingual and Multicultural Education Department. She said the district is planning dual language pilots this year for expanded transitional kindergarten that will also make the district more attractive to parents who want bilingual programs. She also said that local district superintendents are preparing feeder patterns to figure out how students can go from kindergarten through 12th grade in dual language programs at all district schools.
The district could be more attractive to more students with dual language programs and Superintendent Michelle King said she is committed to increasing the number of bilingual and biliterate high school graduates by 60 percent by the 2018-19 school year, Maldonado said.
“LAUSD is the school district that is best poised to help young dual language learners,” said Sarah Neville-Morgan, the deputy director of program management for First 5 California, based in Sacramento. She noted that 249 languages are spoken in California, which teaches 1 in 4 of the nation’s dual language students.
An English learner is a student who speaks something other than English at home and is learning English as a second language. A dual language learner is a student learning two languages at the same time.
At LA Unified, 165,000 students — or 26 percent of the entire district — are English learners, and more than half of the 14,000 students in the district’s early education centers are dual language learners, according to a recent report by the Department of Child and Family Studies California State LA.
If all the English learners in LA Unified were put in their own school district it would be the second-largest district in California and the 14th largest school district in the country, according to Marlene Zepeda, who co-authored the report by Cal State LA.
“In most places in the world, bilingualism is the norm, it’s not the anomaly like it is here in the United States,” Zepeda said. “In LA Unified you need to have preschool in the master plan of bilingualism.”
A program that will set up dual language curriculums for pre-K students is being compiled by Dean Tagawa, the executive director of LA Unified’s Early Childhood Education Division. He noted that it is harder to teach a child another language by the age of 7, so beginning earlier is better.
“We will be putting together a timeline,” Tagawa said. “For this program to go district-wide you need to take a step back and say let’s do this well. You can’t just say to a teacher, ‘You speak Chinese so you will speak it half the time in your classroom.’ There needs to be training.”
More dual language schools would also result in the district being able to more quickly reclassify students who are English learners and make them proficient in English, Tagawa said.
To help with the district’s goal, they are considering a new fluency exam that would assess the verbal and writing skills of teachers with multiple languages. They also want to educate and involve families in the programs.
“Parents have fears about their child going to a dual language program because some of them say they don’t want their child to talk like them,” Tagawa said.
Tagawa explained that if a school has 20 parents interested in starting a dual language program, they can discuss the idea with their principal to get a program started in their school.
One of the parents at the committee meeting talked about how some principals are resistant to forming a dual language school.
“We want to have that come from our top leadership and trickle down to the school level,” Maldonado said. “Obviously we need to do more education from the top leadership, and that is something we will bring up with our local district superintendents to ensure that we understand the issue. It has to be led from the top and across all levels and down to the school site.”
Committee chairman and school board member Ref Rodriguez said, “We have a lot of work to do to teach our leaders and teach our parents that they have the right to ask for this.”