Stories from the Nation's Capital

Building Instructional Programs and Supports for Dual Language Learners from PreK–3rd Grade in Washington, DC
Policy Paper
Oct. 30, 2015

The District of Columbia’s early education investments and school-level autonomy policies are fostering dual language learners’ (DLL) success, says a new report from New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group. 

Since 2000, the number of DLLs enrolled in U.S. schools has grown by 18 percent, but many communities have experienced unprecedented growth in DLL enrollment — it grew by 610 percent in South Carolina, 306 percent in Kentucky and 255 percent in Nevada. As these districts grapple with how to best serve these students, they can look to other districts with a long history of educating DLLs for lessons and replicable practices. 

Stories from the Nation’s Capital: Instructional Programs and Supports for Dual Language Learners from PreK–3rd Grade in Washington, D.C. examines how D.C.’s experience with reforms can serve as a trial balloon for how school choice, gentrification and accountability policies intersect with DLLs’ needs. 

"We know that pre-K is particularly beneficial for DLLs. But we also know that pre-K programs work best for these — and all — students when they’re designed and implemented carefully. It's early days yet, but D.C. policymakers and educators are building a strong, comprehensive early education program that should be a model for other local policymakers,” says Conor P. Williams, Director of the DLL National Work Group. 

District and charter schools alike have considerable school-level autonomy around the instructional models they use to serve the needs of their DLL students. The District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) has established dual immersion programs in schools with high populations of DLLs to help these students become bilingual and biliterate in their home language and English. Center City Public Charter Schools used their autonomy as a charter school network to develop a range of programs to support the academic achievement and English language acquisition of their DLL students. These changes contributed to large increases in DLLs’ achievement. 

In the report, Williams and co-author Amaya Garcia share several lessons for other jurisdictions looking to reform and improve services for their DLLs: 

  • Make investments in early education and maintain a strong focus on program quality. 
  • Design dual immersion programs to meet the needs and context of individual schools. 
  • Use strong school leadership to help sustain dual immersion programs. 
  • Provide all teachers with the support and training necessary to implement effective instruction for their DLL students. 
  • Use school accountability to drive school improvement. 
  • Design and implement ESL program models that allow teachers to push into the classroom whenever possible, rather than pulling students out. 

“Many schools across the District of Columbia are working hard to improve and refine their instructional models for DLLs. However, these schools represent pockets of excellence in a public education system that lacks sufficient monitoring and guidance on how to address the educational needs of DLLs across all campuses,” concludes Garcia, a policy analyst at New America, “Moving forward, the city’s education agencies would be wise to collaborate and develop systemic supports to help ensure all schools have the capacity and tools necessary to effectively educate their DLL students.” 

The full report can be accessed here.