Los Angeles Unified school officials often tout the district's "dual language immersion" programs as a huge success story.
In dual language programs, students spend at least half – if not most – of their day learning in a languages ranging from Spanish, Mandarin or even Armenian. Each dual language classroom features a mix of native English speakers with students who speak the "target language" proficiently.
By next year, school district officials will have tripled the number of dual language programs offered since 2012. The expansion is driven by research suggesting there could be a huge upside for English learners: dual language instruction has the potential to help this needy population deepen their native language abilities while — all at the same time — becoming proficient in English and growing other academic skills.
But in a presentation to the school board on Tuesday, L.A. Unified officials said they were concerned that of the 150,000 English learners in the district, only 6 percent have enrolled in a dual language program so far.
"In my perfect world," said Hilda Maldonado, who runs L.A. Unified's Multilingual and Multicultural Education Division, "I would want to see more English learners' families taking advantage of these programs as a way to learn both languages and graduating students that are bilingual into the workforce."
Maldonado added the caveat that this was her personal opinion, but did not yet reflect any official policy in her department. Still, the number of dual language programs alone — as many as 137 dual language programs will be up and running district-wide next year, up from 42 six years ago — reflect a district-wide excitement about their potential.
Former L.A. Unified superintendent Michelle King had promoted dual language programs not only for their benefits to English learners, but as a draw for English-speaking families to enroll in district-run schools.
A common concern among English learner advocates is that English-proficient children might take up too many seats in bilingual education programs, crowding out English Learner students who might benefit most.
Whether the district is falling into this trap, though, is not clear. Maldonado pointed out some students in dual language enrollment programs used to be labeled as English learners, but had since proven enough English proficiency to be "reclassified." These reclassified students are not included in the dual language program enrollment numbers she showed the board on Tuesday.
And it's only been a year since California voters passed Proposition 58, repealing laws that restricted schools' ability to teach English learners in their native language — and Maldonado says the "concerning" percentage of English learners enrolled in dual language programming shows the district is still adjusting to the post-Prop. 58 landscape.
Maldonado said some are reluctant to embrace dual language: some principals are nervous about applying to start a program in a language they don't speak themselves; teachers, even bilingual ones, are concerned about whether they have the language skills to teach in a second language in an academic setting.
Parents of English learners, too, have their doubts.
"I have heard parents say, ‘If I put them in a bilingual program, when are they going to learn English?’" Maldonado said in an interview. "There seems to be this misnomer that, 'if I go into a bilingual program, I'm not going to learn English,' which is not the case.
"You are going to learn English," she continued, "and you’re going to learn your content areas in a language that you understand, so you don't fall behind and we don't have to remedy that down the line — say, repeating a math course, or repeating an English course because you were busy learning the language but failed to learn the content."
Maldonado presented the figures this week while updating L.A. Unified board members on an ongoing re-write of the district's English Learner Master Plan. Dual language instruction will feature prominently in that plan.
But more broadly, the re-written strategy will focus on how, freed of the old restrictions on native-language instruction, L.A. Unified will change the way it serves the largest group of English Learners in any single U.S. school district.
"We can no longer think about language learning as just about English learning," Maldonado said. "It's about meaning-making, comprehension, and an overall, socially-emotionally well-rounded student."
"There’s a huge shift in thinking about the work in a way that’s more student-centered and more 'whole-child' … We can no longer define a person just by the language that they can or cannot speak."