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The Intrusion of White Families Into Bilingual Schools

January 14, 2018

Updated Jan. 17.

Beth’s note: The premise of the article linked to below is an interesting one, and one that touches on many issues families and schools negotiate when it comes to immersion programs in general.

The basic premise is that in two-way immersion programs in schools that have specific enrollment boundaries it’s too easy for white, middle class families to move into the neighborhood, driving up rents and home prices and pushing out less-wealthy families, which tend to include a higher proportion of English Language Learner kids.

Thus a two-way immersion program can become one-way immersion and no longer serve the students it was originally created for. (And yes, while all parents in immersion want their kids to be bilingual, in just about any school district that’s got two-way immersion, the overarching goal of the district is to insure that students who aren’t proficient in English become so. It’s a happy side effect that this also allows English-speaking students to learn another language.)

For those not steeped in education terminology, two-way language immersion programs are built to teach both English Language Learners (ELL’s in education-jargon) English and English-speaking students the “target language” (in our case, Mandarin.) One-way immersion programs are meant for an English-speaking study population who are learning a second language. For example, in Canada all the French-immersion public programs are one-way because they’re set up for English-speaking students to learn French.

Most Mandarin immersion programs in the United States are either one-way, or at least de facto one-way simply because there aren’t enough Mandarin speakers in most districts for them to be two-way.

Two-way immersion is a primary way that many school districts work to help ELLs learn English, so having them lose access to these programs is very problematic.

The interesting point here is that the Washington DC school district seems to function much differently than most. In the majority of two-way language immersion programs I’ve heard of, the school reserves a number of seats in each grade for English-speaking and English Language Learner students and sticks to it. That’s one reason spaces in these programs is almost always based on a lottery and seldom on residential areas – you want to make sure you’re giving everyone equal access to a scare resource.

Though it does happen. Thanks to the folks at Lotus Chinese Learning in San Antonio for telling me that the Mandarin immersion program at Doss Elementary in Austin, Texas requires that families  live in the Doss enrollment zone. According to them, the program at Doss Elementary “turned the school (and its surrounding real estate) from ‘meh’ to highly desirable over the past few years.”

There sound educational research behind this. Having half the students fluent in one language and half the students fluent in the other is ideal for having both learn both – and for creating an environment where both languages are used as social and not just academic languages.

Here in San Francisco, our immersion programs hold seats on what’s at least theoretically a 33-33-33 system: one-third for monolingual English speakers, one-third for monolingual Mandarin (or Spanish, in our Spanish immersion programs) speakers and one-third for students who arrive at school bilingual.

In the early days of our Mandarin immersion program, we didn’t have enough Mandarin-speaking applicants, so we were effectively a one-way program (i.e. almost all the students were English speakers and all were learning Mandarin.)

It used to be tremendously frustrating to parents and the schools when the District would hold seats for the nonexistent Mandarin speaking students they were waiting for, while we had English-speaking families dying to get into the program.

This was a problem because of funding – our Mandarin immersion classrooms were frequently much smaller than they could have been, which cost the school money (about $5,000 per student per year) and which we couldn’t ever make up. That’s because new students couldn’t come into the program after first grade unless they had skills in both language already, which was rare unless they were transferring from another immersion program somewhere else in the country.

Thankfully, the programs have matured, Mandarin-speaking families are applying and San Francisco’s schools are more fully two-way now.

But back to Washington DC. And Spanish immersion, which is very different because most districts that have Spanish immersion programs have a fairly large Spanish-speaking parent community – so finding enough Spanish-speaking students isn’t a problem.

What’s surprising to me is that Washington DC allows admission into immersion programs based on living in the school’s admission boundaries. It appears DC thinks it’s  obliged to do it that way, though I don’t know of any other districts that do.

It is true (or it used to be) that in Portland, Oregon families got a slight advantage in the school lottery if they applied to their neighborhood school.

It’s an easy problem to solve – make the school’s enrollment area district-wide and hold places for kids with the appropriate language skills and needs, just as everyone else does.

Of course, that leaves families having to take their kids long distances to get to school, which isn’t possible for everyone. I certainly know that we died a thousand deaths trying to deal with carpools and driving our kids to Starr King, which is at the top of a hill in San Francisco that’s very poorly served by public transit.

Even so, if the lottery is district-wide, it wouldn’t encourage families to move near to a school because doing so wouldn’t give them an advantage in the school.

I’m curious if readers know of other districts where this is a problem? And how has it been dealt with?

The article that sparked this:

The Intrusion of White Families Into Bilingual Schools

From: The Atlantic

Will the growing demand for multilingual early-childhood programs push out the students these programs were designed to serve?

By Conor Williams

Stephanie Lugardo’s second-grade classroom at Academia Antonia Alonso in Wilmington, Delaware, is bubbling. Students chatter with one another as they work, smiling and joking and wiggling in and out of their chairs. Sure—it’s an elementary-school classroom. It’s expected to exude the earnest joy of children growing into themselves. But this one is different. Smiles break out on an array of faces, and the chatter spills out in English and Spanish.

This is an incarnation of a new American pluralism, one of the latest iterations of Walt Whitman’s “teeming nation of nations” flowering in “their curiosity and welcome of novelty.” Downstairs, in a kindergarten class, an African American student exclaims to her friend, “I know how to say that in Spanish!”

José Aviles, the head of Academia Antonia Alonso, describes the school as a sort of multicultural nirvana. “We tell parents, ‘Your kid is going to be surrounded by Latino kids, white kids, African American kids—we offer everyone the same education, the same quality, the same love,’” he told me.

Please read more here.

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 14, 2018 8:36 am

    To attend the Chinese DL program at Doss Elementary in Austin TX, families must live in the Doss zone. I do not work in Austin anymore, but according to former colleagues the DL programs at Doss turned the school (and its surrounding real estate) from “meh” to highly desirable over the past few years.

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