Bilingual Education May Help Shrink Achievement Gap for Hispanic Students

Manny Bernal (far left) and Meribel Dominguez (center) with other El Paso students at the conference

Manny Bernal immigrated to El Paso from Chihuahua at the age of 12.  He describes school then as “horrible,” because he didn’t speak any English.  He says he was an “outcast.”  But after his freshman year, he entered the bilingual program at his high school.  He says, “It gives me a chance to keep my identity.  It’s like a comfort zone.  It’s like a place where you know you won’t get harassed.  Where you’re just safe.”

Maribel Dominguez is another senior from the Isleta School District in El Paso.  She speaks three languages.  She explains, “Ever since I was really young my mother taught me to never forget where I come from, and I always grew up with the idea that different languages were really important.  I grew up in a school where we had to learn not only Spanish nor English, but Russian too.”

The students speak with passion about the benefits of a bilingual education.  Yet their program in El Paso is at risk. They say their school district hasn’t adequately funded it, and there aren’t enough teachers to accommodate all the students who want to participate.

Recently, Manny and Maribel traveled to Santa Fe for La Cosecha, a national bilingual education conference.  They shared their experiences with young people from all over New Mexico at the Student Leadership Institute.

Educator Juan de la Cruz Delgadillo is originally from Mexico, and now teaches Spanish in an Albuquerque charter school.  He says bilingual education isn’t just about learning in two languages.  “I see that students with a bilingual education have become stronger by learning about two different cultures.  It’s a great accumulation of knowledge and understanding.  They’re not just learning from one culture, but from two.”

Educators gather for a workshop at the La Cosecha conference.

On the agenda for the conference were sessions on using music and rhyme to engage young students, academic vocabulary development, and how to integrate new curriculum standards known as the Common Core. 

At a workshop on bilingual methods, elementary teachers from Ohio and Iowa discussed nonfiction books in Spanish.

It was one of numerous conversations on how to help struggling students, many of whom are English language learners.

The question is critical in addressing the achievement gap between Latino and white students.  And the gap between students learning English and English-speaking peers is even wider, more than thirty points.

Critics of dual language programs say that students who speak other languages should focus on English, since English proficiency is the key to academic success.

Yet studies show that when children develop speaking, reading, and writing abilities in their first languages, they’re better able to learn English.

New Mexico’s history means bilingual Spanish-English programs appeal to an array of families: Anglo, immigrant, and Hispanic.  David Rogers is the executive director of the nonprofit Dual Language Education New Mexico.  He says, “there’s an excitement around it, especially for traditional New Mexican families, who have lost their heritage language over the years and want to bring that back.”

And it’s not just Spanish language programs that are growing.  Eight Native languages are spoken in New Mexico, and some tribes have turned to bilingual programs as a way to preserve their linguistic and cultural heritage.

Yet the path to providing native-language instruction for language minority students is far from clear.

Rosa Molina is the executive director of the Association for Two-Way, Dual Language Education, based in San Jose, California. 

She says negative attitudes towards immigration have a “tremendous effect” on bilingual education because they impact the status of the language and of the people who speak it.  She explains, “And we get mired in this conversation about, this child is an immigrant, this child wasn’t born here, we owe this child nothing.”

She argues that this debate hurts students because educators have to defend their programs instead of focusing on good teaching.  Molina says, “It takes us away from creating great things for kids.  It really does.”

Molina says that bilingual programs are being overlooked in the national discussion on school reform.  According to her, charter schools, vouchers and other programs that work outside public schools aren’t the answer for language minority students.

“We still have to keep our doors open for anyone who’s assigned to our school district, to anyone who’s assigned to our schools, and we need to be able to have program options and viable programs for those children.”

For Molina, the solution has to be bigger than creating an alternative.  She calls for a “moral imperative” for equitable education.  For high school student Manny Bernal, bilingual education, he says, gives him hope for a better life.