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“The Intrusion of White Families Into Bilingual Schools?”

March 17, 2020


Argh. Yet another headline that misses the distinction between dual-language immersion and bilingual programs. Thankfully the article itself is much more nuanced than the headline [And note that it’s from 2017, but it seems to suddenly have popped back up in Facebook so I’m seeing discussion of it on several immersion lists.]

Bilingual programs are created to teach English Langauge Learner students English, while maintaining and supporting the students’ home language, usually Spanish in most districts, though sometimes Mandarin. Students who are already fluent in English do not attend bilingual programs as a rule.

Dual-language immersion programs are meant to teach two groups of students (hence the “dual” in “dual language.) One group are native speakers of the “target language” (say Mandarin or Spanish) while the other group doesn’t speak that language. They’re usually native English speakers.

In dual-language immersion programs, both groups of students learn both languages.

Ideally, half the students speak the target language and half the students speak English, so they learn from each other and reinforce the languages in each other.

In a one-way immersion program, all the students come in speaking English and together they learn a new language. This is how French immersion works in Canada, for example. As I wrote about extensively in my book, A Parent’s Guide to Mandarin Immersion, this is often the method used in Mandarin immersion programs, in part because most communities don’t have enough Mandarin-speaking kids to make up half the class.

For those that do,  many districts reserve spaces for each cohort. In San Francisco, the district tries to have one-third native Mandarin speakers, one-third bilingual (kids who speak both Mandarin and English) and one-third English speakers.

Overall the article below is good, so perhaps the title’s just meant to be click-bait. And it’s talking about Spanish immersion for the most part. It’s pretty tough to find a district in the United States where there aren’t at least some native Spanish speaking students, so for Spanish it can happen that English-speaking students might take seats that could have gone to Spanish-speaking students.

But that’s a problem the district should be able to deal with rather than letting balanced classrooms, which are ideal, skew towards English-speakers. If there are enough students from both language groups applying, balanced classroom are not hard to create. And again, it’s almost never an issue in Mandarin immersion.

Districts that don’t have enough students to create a balanced dual-immersion classroom have to consider the makeup they want and what they’re trying to accomplish. If a district doesn’t have many target language-speaking students, what is its goal for an immersion school? That’s a valid question. If the school isn’t aiding English Language Learners, does it do other things the district wants, such as keeping families in the district or attracting families who might have moved or gone to private schools?

Gentrification does change neighborhoods and cities. But it’s up to school districts to decide what their goals are and work for them through placement. As the writer points out, the easiest way around the problem is to simply create more dual-language immersion schools. Not artificially limit access to popular programs, which all too often is what I see being suggested.

The Atlantic, Dec. 28, 2017

The Intrusion of White Families Into Bilingual Schools

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