Engaging the Local Community in Dual Language Immersion Program Development

Today we released a new report, Educating California’s English Learners: Westminster Brings Students’ Home Languages into the Mainstream, which highlights Westminster School District’s (WSD) approach to designing and implementing two distinct dual language immersion programs in the span of two years.  In 2015, the district opened the first Vietnamese DLI program in the state at DeMille Elementary School with considerable input and support from the Vietnamese community.  The following year, the district launched a Spanish dual language immersion program at Willmore Elementary school in preschool and kindergarten.


Westminster, which is located in the northwest part of California’s Orange County, is a city with considerable linguistic diversity: a full 65 percent of residents speak a language other than English at home. The district is most notable for the seminal court case Mendez vs. Westminster which helped to end the segregation of Mexican American children in California’s schools in the mid 1940s.  Mendez vs. Westminster remains an important legacy in WSD, where nearly 50 percent of students are English learners and the majority of students are Latino and Asian.


In recent years, Westminster has made strides in prioritizing the needs of English learners. In 2014, for example, the district created a district-level Office of Language Acquisition, which has been instrumental in its efforts to develop and implement dual language immersion programs in Vietnamese and Spanish.


Dual language immersion programs — where instruction is split between English and a partner language such as Spanish or Mandarin — have grown increasingly popular as a strategy for helping all students become bilingual and biliterate. Multiple research studies suggest that DLI programs are particularly beneficial for English Learners (ELs) long term academic achievement and English language proficiency. However, ELs’ access to DLI programs can be uneven and in some cases, such as in Arizona, they are excluded from these programs altogether. Until recently, the majority of ELs in California were also kept out of bilingual education programs due to the state’s English-only law that mandated EL students be taught exclusively in English and severely limited the use of bilingual instruction in K-12 schools. That all changed last November with the passage of Proposition 58, which allows school districts to determine the best instructional approach for EL students, including DLI and other bilingual education programs.


This policy change was critical in the context of California, which is home to nearly 1.4 million ELs that make up almost a quarter of all student enrollment in the state. With bilingual education poised for a resurgence, school districts across the state should look to existing DLI programs, such as the ones in Westminster, for strategies on program development and implementation.


Westminster’s program development was led by Renae Bryant, former executive director of the WSD Office of Language Acquisition. In collaboration with colleagues, Bryant convened a DLI Task Force to help design program details, build capacity by reading DLI research, identify resources for DLI families and promote and advocate for the programs.


This task force was essential for easing tensions around the selection of materials used in the Vietnamese DLI program. As Vincent Thieu Vo, who runs the Westminster Vietnamese Language and Culture School and has played in active role in the development of the district’s program explained, the community lacks trust in the Communist Vietnamese government. “Everything that comes from there is fake education [and] propaganda. We tried to not select the books from Vietnam and go back to real textbooks, good Vietnamese, correct grammar, concise. [In Vietnam], there is a tendency to do propaganda—even rewrite history. We don’t like that. We don’t want that. We want to teach the students the real history of what happened.”


Natalie Tran, director of NRCAL, noted that differences in the Vietnamese language have made some words highly contested. Specifically, there are two streams of Vietnamese language, “Pre-1975” (which is spoken by the majority of those living in Westminster) and “Post-1975” (which is spoken in Vietnam), and that certain words can evoke negative emotions. Tran played a key role in communicating these challenges to the district and was an essential partner in forming connections between Bryant and her colleagues at WSD and Vietnamese community organizations.


The need for community buy-in was also essential to the planning of the Spanish DLI program and ensuring that classrooms had equal representation of native Spanish speakers and native English speakers. WSD district staff collaborated with Christopher Carrillo, the district’s Spanish translator, on family outreach and recruitment. They canvassed the local swap meet, held parent information nights, and even went door-to-door in an attempt to pull in more Spanish speaking families. Carrillo said that some of these families had hesitations about dual language immersion and felt that their children could just learn Spanish at home. He said, “you have to sell them on the idea that [the program] will teach them to read and write in Spanish and help with jobs in the future.”


Taken together, Westminster’s programs illustrate the complexity and potential of developing dual language immersion programs that fully engage the local community and meet the needs of all students. To learn more about what Westminster has learned about implementing dual language immersion programs in today’s California context, read their story here.


Author:

Amaya Garcia is a senior researcher in the Education Policy program at New America where she provides research and analysis on policies and programs related to dual language education, bilingual teacher preparation and early education.