BY YVETTE BORJA
Every aspect of John C. Daniels Elementary School actively promotes a language-loving attitude. The pre-K through eighth grade school’s website logo features the word “welcome” in ten different languages wrapped around the image of a globe. All classroom materials are provided in Spanish and English, and the school library is stocked with books in both languages. The magnet elementary school began implementing these changes in 1996, when Daniels became a dual-language school.
A dual-language model, also referred to as two-way immersion, operates with the goal of having students graduate knowing two languages. In an ideal setting, half of the children in a classroom are dominant in English and the other half in a second target language. For Viviana Ortiz, a Spanish language teacher who underwent the switch while working at Daniels, the new model presents successes as well as new challenges. Ortiz and her colleagues at John C. Daniels promote the benefits of bilingualism, but a mismatching of priorities between the state, district, and John C. Daniels often creates difficulty for the school to faithfully execute the model. Though the district of New Haven provides some support, it also imposes mandates on John C. Daniels without the specifics of its dual-language curriculum in mind.
The pressures of standardized testing success present an added obstacle for those working in dual-language environments. At the elementary school level, the only two subjects that are tested under No Child Left Behind regulations are math and English. This greatly de-incentivizes fidelity to dual-language instruction. The fact that New Haven is a “high priority” district under NCLB because of its demographics and poor testing history only spurs more scrutiny from the state. Given the variability in which grade children enter the dual-language program, carrying out grade-level mandates in a second language can prove challenging.
Edith Johnson, principal of John C. Daniels, cited appropriate professional development as one of the main reforms she would like to implement in the dual-language model. Support materials sent by the state are often written only in English, providing only marginal aid to the Spanish-language instructors.
“They always have more work than, I think, the English only teachers. When the district sends us a program for us to use, nine times out of ten, it’s in all English. When the state comes down with these mandates, we’re going to spend $50,000 on these materials, a portion of that needs to be in Spanish,” Johnson said.
Neither the district nor the state adjusts their regulations to align with these programs, placing full responsibility on the staff of John C. Daniels.
One of the largest difficulties for dual-language instructors is effectively differentiating instruction to children who are at wildly different places in their language knowledge. Although some dual-language schools deny entry above a certain grade level, schools in New Haven have not followed suit in order to give families more say in choosing where to educate their children.
“So you would have kids that can write the standard, which is to write a paragraph. I have kids that can only write a sentence. For me, all those mandates, I have to carry them out in Spanish. So, the Spanish classroom has to support the English classroom and they’re not always applicable because learning a second language is different,” Ortiz explained.
Although it is not known for progressive language policies, New Haven implemented a dual-language model when high-quality bilingual education was largely de-prioritized nationwide. The Department of Education reported in 1997 that only 29.5 percent of those teaching English Language Learners were trained and qualified to do so. Despite the growing demand for bilingual and bicultural teachers, no entity made any concerted effort to recruit teachers qualified in these areas. Certain states even embarked on campaigns to eliminate such programs.
The timing was hardly ideal—the 1990s saw an influx of 14 million immigrants to the United States. The numbers of enrolled English language learners in public schools increased to 10.5 percent of the total school population.
While New Haven was making strides towards a revolutionized educational philosophy that promoted multilingualism, California was implementing a state-enforced English-only mantra. In 1998, Proposition 227 was passed in California, a referendum law that banned native-language instruction in the state’s public schools. Within five years of the passage of Proposition 227, Arizona and Massachusetts followed suit with similar laws that banned native-language instruction. Meanwhile, New Haven made progressive strides. The district expanded its dual-language offerings to another Pre K-8 school: Columbus Family Academy, also located in Fair Haven.
Johnson noted that a shortage of bilingual educators persists today. No teacher preparation programs have committed themselves to better prepare the workforce. Indeed, bilingual educators are the least likely subgroup of teachers to be properly certified. “Staffing. Finding highly qualified, dynamic, bilingual teachers. That is absolutely a challenge,” Johnson said.
The issue of staffing, paired with a sub-par prioritization on the district level, has hindered the program from reaching its full potential. Although dual-language programs are looked to as the most progressive and effective solution for English Language Learners, and although the district of New Haven has made strides in improving bilingual education, a re-prioritization of funds and resources at the district-level needs to occur before these models are expanded and become as successful as possible.
Despite the multiple issues that dual-languages programs face, they are still the optimal choice, as compared to previously implemented bilingual models. Bilingualism activates the area of the human brain related to problem-solving and memory skills. While in school, dual-language programs can provide opportunities for students to interact with students of different demographic backgrounds. The 50/50 ratio of students dominant in English and dominant in a second target language provide a natural forum for promoting multiculturalism. Importantly, knowledge of a second language is also increasingly seen as an essential tool for success in the workplace. “Society is changing and we need to prepare our children for that change,” Johnson said. Previously, John C. Daniels operated under a transitional bilingual model, which is the approach that the majority of New Haven public schools currently take in educating English language learners. A traditional transitional bilingual model places English language learners in separate classrooms, with a mixture of native-language support and English language instruction. These models typically have the goal of exiting students within two and a half years and “mainstreaming” them into English-only classrooms, despite the overwhelming body of research that cites a minimum of five to seven years for students to comprehensively learn a second language. Such programs can be particularly difficult for English language learners who have had poor quality schooling in their home country or who have not developed a strong literacy base in their native language. For these students, daily school tasks involve deciphering and learning content in two languages, neither of which they feel fully comfortable with.
“There’s all these little missing pieces of the puzzle because you haven’t made all those connections and now they’re throwing this new language at you and there is nothing to connect it to,” Ortiz explained.
Kalill Declet, now a sophomore at The Sound School in New Haven, found the approach used at John Martinez difficult while he was learning English. Declet, a native Puerto Rican, remembers initially enjoying Martinez because many of his peers knew Spanish. Indeed, Declet was placed into Martinez’ transitional bilingual program, where most of his peers were native Spanish-speakers attempting to learn English. When Declet was mainstreamed into an English-only classroom in third grade, he struggled to comprehend the daily lessons.
“At Martinez, I understood them, but not as much as I should have been,” Declet explained.
His mother eventually decided to switch him to the Fair Haven School, which allows students to remain in bilingual classrooms for longer than the strictly enforced two and a half years of Martinez’ transitional bilingual program. Declet was ultimately satisfied with the Fair Haven program because it taught him how to speak English, a language he felt he needed in order to achieve success.
As for the future of dual-language programs, Johnson is in support of expansion, particularly at the high school level. Although nearly 30 percent of incoming English Language Learner students entering the system at the high school level, there are no dual-language programs offered for that age bracket.
“We are a diverse community, and it would be great to have more languages offered. Dual language should be an option for all families,” Johnson said.
Yvette Borja is a Junior in Saybrook College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org