Framing an Agenda for Dual Immersion Program Expansion in Montgomery County

Blog Post
Jan. 23, 2017

Last month, Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Jack Smith released a budget proposal that included funding for expanding two-way dual immersion programs in elementary schools and developing a plan for continuing the approach through middle school. Currently, the Maryland school district has a handful of immersion programs, but the majority are one-way programs that primarily serve native speakers of English. By contrast, two-way immersion programs enroll equal numbers of native English speakers and native speakers of the partner language (e.g. Spanish, Chinese, French).

Superintendent Smith’s support of two-way dual immersion programs is a step in the right direction, according to Miriam Calderon, a parent leader with Immersion Montgomery. “MCPS has this opportunity to be a leading school district in providing dual language education. We’ve got the right attitude about equity, a diverse student population, and a new superintendent who’s committed to these programs,” said Calderon in an interview.*

Immersion Montgomery was formed by parents and other supporters of language immersion programs as a fundraising effort. Specifically, the group raised funds to commission a white paper to help guide conversations about how to expand dual immersion and foreign language immersion programs in MCPS.  The newly released white paper, Potential Pathways to Equitable Foreign Language Immersion and Dual Language Education in Montgomery County Public Schools, was written by consultant Dr. Virginia Diez,  and outlines a series of recommendations to expand programs, build capacity, and ensure program quality.

The recommendations were drawn from case studies of dual immersion program expansion in Portland Public Schools (OR) and Unified School District U-46 Elgin (IL). Both districts are models for how to ensure program expansion is equitable and well-planned.

Portland Public Schools’ long history of dual immersion programs started in 1986 with Ainsworth Elementary School. As I wrote in a blog post about PPS last year, the district has undergone a fundamental shift in how they approach dual immersion program expansion:

Many of their first attempts were grassroots efforts designed to provide students with educational enrichment. These were “one-way” immersion programs that enrolled a majority of native English speakers. But over time, the district began implementing more two-way immersion programs, which enroll equal shares of native English speakers and native speakers of the partner language and are designed to improve the academic outcomes of both groups.

According to Michael Bacon, assistant director of PPS dual immersion programs, this fundamental shift in the way PPS approached language programs is guided by two objectives: 1) increasing educational equity and 2) closing achievement and opportunity gaps

Indeed, the district’s expansion efforts are linked to their Racial Educational Equity Policy, which ensures that students receive additional and differentiated resources based on their educational needs. Dual language learners (DLLs) have unique linguistic and academic needs that are well supported in dual language programs — a fact that the district recognizes and addresses in their dual immersion expansion efforts. Additionally, as Diez notes, expansion is guided by the district’s Department of Dual Language with the input of a Dual Language Expansion committee comprised of parents, educators, administrators and community members.

The lessons offered by PPS are particularly useful for MCPS, where leaders have made equity a top priority. MCPS has seen major demographic shifts over the past twenty years and persistent achievement gaps. This school year, Hispanics students were the largest student ethnic group followed by Whites, African-Americans and Asians. The share of DLLs in the district’s elementary schools has also grown from 12.8 percent in 2004 to 23.6 percent in 2016. However, as the district’s 2014 annual report highlights, there are significant achievement gaps for DLLs, Hispanic, African-American and low-income students. Dual immersion programs provide one approach for remediating these gaps for DLLs.

A recent study in PPS suggests that dual immersion programs promote DLLs’ academic achievement, facilitate earlier exit from DLL status and language services, and help students become bilingual and biliterate. That study adds to the growing research base on the effectiveness of dual immersion for DLLs’ long-term outcomes.

To be sure, the research on dual immersion is driving more districts to implement these programs. According to the white paper, Unified School District U-46 Elgin implemented Spanish-English dual immersion programs to help close the opportunity gap for DLLs. Importantly, the district was able to build their immersion program out of the existing resources and responsibilities of IL's bilingual mandate.which specifies that schools serving 20 or more DLLs who speak the same language must serve these students in a bilingual education program.

The district’s approach to expansion was intentional and well-planned. Diez highlights a process that was guided by a report from the district’s Dual Language Committee, which served as a framework for expansion. Additionally, various departments within U-46 Elgin worked together to develop nine “milestones” to help keep expansion plans on track. These milestones included “determination of dual language program model and admissions criteria”, a “dual language professional development plan” and “curriculum alignment.”

However, as Diez points out, “equitable access to dual language in Elgin U-46 is conceived differently for ELLs than for English speakers.” Since these programs were created under the umbrella of the state’s bilingual mandate, all DLLs who speak Spanish are guaranteed a seat in the program and native English speakers are offered seats in a “first-come-first-served basis.” That’s a paradigm shift from the way programs in MCPS operate and the district should consider how to create a more equal balance in DLL and non-DLL enrollment.

Diez offers these examples as evidence that two-way immersion programs can boost DLL achievement, promote school integration and enhance equity in MCPS. But in order to capitalize on its current momentum, the district must ensure that they are deliberate in its approach to expansion. “We have to ensure that as we roll this out we take a whole district approach. This can really be a win-win for MCPS due to the huge demand and interest from parents for more opportunities for children to be bilingual and biliterate. These programs can support superior academic achievement for all students. But in order to get those outcomes we need to do it right,” said Calderon.

Immersion Montgomery outlines four action steps MCPS can take now:

  • Commission the development of a dual language education policy grounded in racial equity;

  • Create a dual language expansion committee;

  • Commission a county-wide needs assessment to inform the planning of future expansion; and

  • Mitigate attrition by retaining the sibling link (for background on this issue, click here), and improve outreach to engage underrepresented families

And as Calderon told me, MCPS needs to focus on comprehensive outreach and support to all families in order to ensure that as programs expand, they reflect the diversity of the community.  For their part, Immersion Montgomery hopes to continue educating parents about dual language education through groups like the Latino Student Achievement Action Group, African American Student Achievement Action Group and school PTAs. “We want to engage parents and stakeholders around the findings and the recommendations in this report and help MCPS be successful in advancing equity and excellence through dual language education,” said Calderon.

* Ms. Calderon has worked has worked with members of the DLL National Work Group on several past and current projects.


This post comes from New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group. Click here for more information on this team’s work. To subscribe to the biweekly newsletter, click here, enter your contact information, and select “DLL National Work Group Newsletter.”