LOS ANGELES – Preschool teacher Rosa Ramirez has a special way of asking her students to line up for playtime outside.
“Pueden pararse si llevan puesto algo de color amarillo, como una abeja,” she tells them.
In English, Ramirez would say, “You can stand up if you are wearing yellow – like a bee.” But this is the half of the school day in which she teaches exclusively in Spanish.
Her students are not confused by her language choice. Most of the 4-year-olds wearing even a smidgen of yellow stand up as instructed.
The preschool dual-language program at Gates Street Early Education Center in Lincoln Heights, one of Los Angeles’ oldest neighborhoods with dense populations of Latino and Asian residents, is part of a growing number of bilingual education models taking root in California and across the country. Many of them are designed to serve students from Spanish-speaking families, as well as students from other cultures, under mounting evidence that learning two languages can help people from all backgrounds become stronger students.
Roughly 3.8 million students in U.S. schools are native Spanish-speakers who are not proficient in English. They make up the bulk of the approximately 5 million students nationwide identified as English language learners, the fastest-growing demographic in schools – and the lowest-performing, as judged by achievement tests and graduation rates.
Sixty-seven percent of students with limited English skills graduated high school after four years in 2016, compared with 84% of all students, according to federal data.
Language experts recommend how to improve those outcomes: More high-quality, long-term dual-language programs can close the achievement gap in literacy between English learners and native English speakers after five to six years, according to research.
The programs can be tough to implement. Hurdles include a debate over the best way to teach English learners, public hostility against those who speak a native language other than English, shortages of bilingual teachers and even the fact that dual-language programs often grow fastest in areas where upper-income parents ask for them. That's good for children who participate, but it worries advocates who want to see language-minority students have equal access.
Pressure is mounting in states where numbers of Latino English learners have surged. Mississippi, South Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas and Maryland have seen the number of English learners more than double from 2005 to 2015, according to federal data.
“If we can make children feel more whole and more ready and more accepted and welcomed and validate their prior knowledge and prior learning experiences, then we've gone a long way to making them ready to learn over the course of a lifetime,” says Tara Fortune, immersion program director at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition.