Muy bien: Dual-language immersion program grows to 27 schools

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When Withers Elementary reopened in the ’90s, the Dallas ISD school struggled to compete with the numerous private schools in the surrounding area.

The North Dallas school continually battled low enrollment until a group of parents had an idea in the early 2000s: the school could start a two-way immersion dual-language program that would put Spanish-speaking and English-speaking students in the same classroom, teach them the same curriculum in both languages, and create bilingual, bicultural and biliterate students. Fast forward nine years, and not only is Withers’ student population at capacity, it has a waiting list to get into its dual language program as a kindergartener.

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Britanny Carpenter, a teacher at Withers Elementary, leads her dual-language students in counting out numbers.

“The dual-language program completely revitalized this school,” Withers Principal Connie Wallace said. “The program has gained traction every year it has been in place.”

Dallas ISD’s dual-language program—which is at 148 elementary schools—is the largest in the country. As multiple studies show that dual-language students perform better than their peers, Cloris Rangel, the Dallas ISD Director of Bilingual Programs, said that expanding the program has been a district priority.

The majority of Dallas ISD schools have one-way dual-language programs, which focuses on supporting non-English-speaking students. Meanwhile, a growing number of schools—27 as of this year—have implemented two-way immersion dual-language programs such as the one at Withers to great success. Five of those schools started two-way dual-language programs this year, including the first such program at a Dallas ISD high school. Rangel said the ultimate goal of all Dallas ISD dual-language programs is to create biliterate students.

Over the course of a day in a two-way dual-language program, students that speak and students that are learning to speak English are taught together certain subjects (such as science) in Spanish and other subjects (such as math) in English. The classrooms aim to have a fairly even split of students who speak English and are learning to speak English.

“These students can think like a scientist in Spanish, then turn around and solve a complicated math problem in English: it just blows you out of the water to watch,” Rangel said. “Being bilingual and biliterate gives these students a huge leg up not just in school, but in their lives well beyond graduation.”

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Dual-language students are all smiles at Withers Elementary.

Multiple parents said the benefits of enrolling their children in a two-way dual-language enrollment extend beyond just academic gains.

“For these students and their families, it breaks down the barriers of communication that can separate different cultures and any cultural taboos,” Rangel said. “These students from very different backgrounds become friends, go to each others’ birthday parties and slumber parties, and grow into globally sensitive young adults.”

To in part meet the growing dual-language program demand, Dallas ISD has stepped up its recruitment of bilingual teachers. District recruiters this year are traveling to Puerto Rico, Spain and Mexico as part of their effort to interview and hire effective bilingual teachers for next year.

Meanwhile, Rangel’s team is getting ready to reach out to district schools to see whether a two-way dual-language program would be a good fit for the campuses. She said community support is critical in creating a successful two-way dual language program.

“When a school and the community come together to support a good dual language program, amazing things happen,” Rangel said. “We are excited to continue expanding the program next year and beyond.”

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