DC has taken steps to offer bilingual education programs, but much more needs be done to meet the growing demand of the community. The solutions are urgent, and need to happen immediately. With each passing day we fall short, we are leaving students behind.
Bilingual education through language immersion has proven to not only be effective but very valuable for both English learners and native English speakers. It is incumbent on our DC Council to understand the benefits of bilingual education and do more to expand educational options in DC.
To be considered a bilingual, immersion, or dual-language school, at least half of instructional time must occur in a language other than English, even for children who are native English speakers. This is different from teaching a foreign language, because students might have entire subjects taught in another language; for example, math may be taught in English while history may be taught in Spanish.
There are eleven schools in DC that teach children in Spanish and English. There are seven DC Public Schools that offer bilingual elementary education, including Tyler on Capitol Hill. Four DC charter schools offer bilingual education, though none are in Ward 6.
Of course, space is not readily available at these schools, and waitlists often contain upwards of 200 names. The waitlists for pre-k programs that offer bilingual instruction are, on average, 2.2 times longer as the non-bilingual program waitlists.
Unfortunately, bilingual education programs have not been able to expand and become the norm in large part because we lack the funds to hire and train qualified teachers. Bilingual program developer Katarina Brito says that DCPS is competing for highly qualified teachers who are not only trained in specific subjects, but also capable of running a classroom in Spanish. It’s important that we recognize this gap in qualified teachers and discuss how the DC Council can do more to incentivize employment in DC as a bilingual educator, and empower and encourage bilingual individuals in DC to consider careers in this field. Close to 30 percent of the DC-area population speaks a language other than English, so with a commitment from the DC Council in the form of adequate funding for education, training and career pathways, we should be able to solve much of our teacher shortage by identifying and supporting talented educators right here in our neighborhoods.
The benefits of bilingual education have caught the attention of parents in DC, an increasing number of parents are seeking to enroll their children in dual-language schools. Programs that were originally created to serve Latinx immigrants and their children have become coveted enrichment opportunities for native English speakers who recognize the value of being bilingual in a globalized world. This is a largely positive development, as it is important for all DC children to obtain linguistic and cultural competence, and learn to embrace diversity rather than feel threatened by it. However, the increased demand means we need government action and involvement to keep pace, so we are not leaving any of our neighbors behind. It’s imperative that we take into consideration the needs of Latinx communities and communities of color while working to expand bilingual education options in DC. Bilingual education should be an option for all families regardless of income level or background, so it’s long past time for the DC Council to prioritize funding and educational pathways to ensure our system is meeting the needs of our community.