The BUZZ 3: Dual Decisions

By on January 25, 2017

Which students benefit most from the valley’s increasingly popular dual immersion program?

Jackson Hole, WY — As Teton County’s dual immersion program rises in popularity, questions have surfaced about how to handle the demand, but no matter the answers native and non-native English speakers may not be enjoying the same benefits.

School board trustees decided to reexamine their decision to reconfigure the schools at the behest of 40 Jackson Elementary teachers. The educators recently penned a letter emphasizing the need for a school dedicated entirely to the dual immersion program.

“Ultimately, the board will have to say, ‘Do we want schools to reflect neighborhoods or the community?” said Bo Miller, principal at Colter Elementary School, the one school that will likely be most affected regardless of school model. While neighborhood demographics vary, the district serves a population that is 30 percent Latino.

Within the school reconfiguration debate, there are those who prefer “neighborhood” schools known as the “strand school model,” where dual is embedded within, and those who would like to see one whole school dedicated to dual immersion and two dedicated to traditional classrooms—the “whole school model.”

With the strand model, Colter’s student population would be 44 percent white to 56 percent Latino. What’s problematic about this model is almost half of the school’s students would be on the free and reduced lunch program—almost 10 percent higher than at Jackson Elementary—a school poverty indicator and thereby a risk indicator for low student achievement.

“The most accurate predictor of student achievement is a student’s socioeconomic status,” Miller said. “When you have a school with high free and reduced lunch, you’re going to have a larger percentage of students needing support, especially in language arts and math, and those services must be delivered.”

Conversely, the whole school model would likely mean Colter would be the dual school with a 50-50 population, dropping the number of students on free and reduced lunch to 42 percent. The drawback of Colter as a dual school would be that some students who live in Cottonwood would not be able to walk or bike to their neighborhood school unless they were in the dual program, something parent Susan Johnson spoke out against at the January 11 workshop on the subject of school reconfiguration.

“We chose to live in our neighborhood, a lot of us, because we have a school in the neighborhood. We chose to have our children walk or bike to school instead of spending time in a car,” she said.

Implemented in 2009, TCSD’s dual program is a two-way immersion model, meaning dual classrooms have a 50-50 split between native Spanish and native English speakers. Students are selected by lottery. If the district went with the whole school model, the dual school will have a 50-50 split and the traditional schools are projected to have populations that mirror that of the community (70-30).

Predictably, the strand model would not reflect the community’s population and diversity but would instead mirror that of the neighborhoods, which would also mean the current two-way dual immersion model would not work at Munger Mountain Elementary School, with a projected student population comprised of only 20 percent Latino students. The school would not have enough native Spanish-speaking students to actually have a two-way immersion. But the model could be adjusted, with a higher proportion of native to non-native English speakers, for instance. Though this would simultaneously limit overall dual program slots for native Spanish speaking students in the district while also limiting language acquisition of the Anglos in the program.

So far the dual program is performing well for an effort in its relative infancy. And dual classrooms appear to be working better than the traditional classrooms when it comes to native Spanish speaker student achievement.

Data provided by the district on student standardized testing indicates native Spanish speakers in the dual program are outperforming native Spanish speakers in traditional classrooms. Anglophone students in the program are performing at the same level or slightly above their traditional classroom counterparts.

While the scores are positive, the program has room to improve when compared to national data sets, which is one reason why TCSD trustee Annie Band isn’t sold on establishing a whole dual school. “Statistically there are no achievement advantages for students in whole school over dual,” she said. “There is no right answer unfortunately but I think our cons seriously outweigh benefits at this point in time for our students.”

However, proponents maintain as the program grows, matures, and stabilizes, test scores of dual students are expected to continue to rise.

Chad Ransom, TCSD’s director of student services, said the district’s dual program is relatively young compared to those used to compile national data sets. “Because we’re growing the program every couple of years, it makes it an even newer program,” he said. “That’s the most important thing to look at with regard to the data.”

With the current strand model, opportunities for the most effective dual and traditional instruction are lost.

Ransom said dual teaching practices are different from traditional practices even in physical education or music classes. “We can’t get to the national results if we’re not using professional development, curriculum, and other tools that are specific to dual immersion.”

He added that the whole school model is beneficial for other reasons. Having a whole school model lends teachers have access to larger teacher teams, which is better for planning and collaboration and efficiency of systems, he said.

Comparing the cost of implementing either school model, says Charlotte Reynolds TCSD information officer, was like comparing apples and oranges. She said the whole school model would actually save money over time as less staff would be needed though “the transportation piece adds additional complexity to the question of cost but staff is trying to understand the complexities.”

Rising tensions

Even though dual immersion programs appear effective when implemented properly, they are often met with opposition. This is mostly in communities grappling with changing demographics, as traditionally white communities become more brown.

“Two-way programs exist in an environment of increasingly negative attitudes toward immigrant and minority groups and their languages,” explained Donna Christian, senior fellow at the Center for Applied Linguistics.

While research has demonstrated the clear benefit of dual immersion programs for English language learners (ELs), dual programs are also often appealing to communities because dominant language speakers get to learn a foreign language, which has both academic and professional benefits [read: economic benefits and increased advantages in their already privileged lives.]

Often dual language immersion programs are encouraged by communities for the benefits they provide their Anglo students rather than the benefit to their Latino students.

“Although there is a long history of indifference toward learning languages other than English in the U.S., there remains a significant difference in attitudes toward English speakers learning other languages and language minorities continuing to develop their native language while they learn English,” Christian writes.

The contention over dual immersion means it is even more important to make sure a program is structured and organized properly. Some believe if it’s not done right, it shouldn’t be done at all—and some view a poorly organized dual program as potentially harmful.

“Immersion education is an ambitious undertaking. It aims to give students the opportunity to learn high levels of academic content—all the core curriculum prescribed by the state and school district—and to do it in a language other than English,” Christian writes. “In this era of standards-based reform, that means planning to work toward high standards in all academic content areas—math, science, social studies AND language—with the proficiency targets at the highest levels.”

Trustees will have to decide whether a whole dual school will help improve a program many teachers believe is already effective and could use the dedicated space.

“The vast majority believe, as teachers, they can do a better job with the whole model versus the strand,” Miller said.

Miller, a former teacher, says the school board will have to take a holistic look at reconfiguration. But, he also said that within the walls of the school the most impactful factor for student achievement is quality of teaching.

Building support for a dual school will be an important piece moving forward, Miller noted.

Different people have varying ideas about what conversations regarding immersion programs ought to include.

In an academic article examining dual-language immersion programs, Stanford University’s Guadalupe Valdés says she hopes bilingual educators will start to discuss “dual-language immersion programs in terms of equal educational opportunity and social justice, not just in economic terms.”

Valdés also pointed to an unnoticed negative effect of two-way dual programs. In the short-term they help ELs academically, but a truly effective program ultimately undermines the strong advantage native Spanish speakers have over their already advantaged white peers in the long term: their bilingualism.

“Being bilingual has given members of the Mexican-American community, for example, access to certain jobs for which language skills were important,” Valdés said. “Taken to its logical conclusion, if dual-language immersion programs are successful, when there are large numbers of majority persons who are also bilingual, this special advantage will be lost.”

Reynolds said while social justice aspects for the Latino student population is one piece considered with regard to the dual program and a dual school, no one has specifically raised the concern of the long-term disadvantage arising from dual programming to native Spanish speakers yet. “Part of what we are looking at is what do all of our students need to be successful,” she said.

Some view dual immersion for English speakers as an all around bad idea. The Spanish language itself has often served as unifier for a community that is often disadvantaged, giving a kind of power to a powerless segment of the community. One bilingual educator Valdés interviewed said, “Dual language immersion education is not a good idea. Si se aprovechan de nosotros en inglés, van a aprovechar de nosotros también en español.” [If they take advantage of us in English, they will take advantage of us in Spanish as well.] PJH

About Jessica Sell Chambers

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