The Reinvention of Bilingual Education in America’s Schools

A New Mexico student at the state Spanish Spelling Bee in April 2011.
A New Mexico student at the state Spanish Spelling Bee in April 2011.

Courtesy of New Mexico Association for Bilingual Education and National Spanish Spelling Bee

One afternoon last fall, I watched as a group of young Hispanic students trained to become the best Spanish-language spellers in America. Their thick practice packet for the fourth annual National Spanish Spelling Bee began with examples of the easiest words students might expect to encounter in the bee’s first round, like esperar (to wait for), cuidar (to take care of), and peluca (wig); it extended to much harder 20th-round samples, like fisioterapeuta (physical therapist), otorrinolaringologo (ear, nose, and throat specialist), and nenufar (water lily). The students, many of whom attended Sunland Park Elementary School in southern New Mexico, located just feet from the Mexican border, beamed with pride when they nailed words.

At Sunland Park and across the country, the Spanish language is enjoying a cultural renaissance among a somewhat counterintuitive group: Hispanics. For years, middle- and upper-class English-speaking families have clamored for more dual language programs where their students can learn both English and Spanish. By contrast, many Spanish-speaking families have been opting out, believing their children needed to learn English, and only English, as quickly as possible.

But in predominantly Hispanic communities like the Gadsden Independent School District, where Sunland Park is located, this reluctance is fading. As a result, bilingual education is coming closer to fulfilling what arguably should have been its primary mission all along: helping non-native speakers become proficient in English while also preserving—and strengthening—their first languages.

In Gadsden, a sprawling district that hugs the border with both Texas and Mexico, 96 percent of the students are Hispanic. Nearly three-quarters come from homes where Spanish is spoken at least part of the time. An uncounted number of students regularly travel between New Mexico and Mexican border towns like Juarez, where extended family members still live.

Here and elsewhere, the Spanish language resurgence didn’t happen overnight.

During much of the 20th century, many public school districts systemically attempted to obliterate the language—at least among Hispanics, who were at times barred from speaking Spanish at school and brutally punished for even minor missteps. Gadsden superintendent Efren Yturralde grew up near El Paso during that era. He recalls a teacher striking him with a wooden paddle when he momentarily slipped into Spanish. Other children had their mouths washed out with soap.

With the passage of the Bilingual Education Act in 1968 and other developments during that decade, Spanish speakers were, for the most part, no longer punished. But many bilingual programs still aimed to teach students English as quickly as possible, with too little priority on maintaining Hispanics’ native language. Truly “bilingual education”—which aims to help students become, and stay, fluent in multiple languages—was too often perceived as a luxury only privileged native English speakers could afford.

Sensing this prejudice and the obstacles their children faced without a working knowledge of English, many Hispanic families preferred bilingual programs that prioritized English instruction above all else. And some remained skeptical of dual language programs’ emphasis on Spanish, which middle-class, English-speaking parents began to embrace in the 1980s.  

Hispanic parents haven’t lost sight of the stigma and obstacles faced by non-English speakers, but they may feel more confident embracing their native language for a few reasons. The American population has become more diverse and multilingual, making it harder to justify English dominance from a pragmatic and political standpoint. For the first time this year, the country’s public schools enroll more “minority” students than non-Hispanic white ones. Also, a growing number of middle- and upper-income families recognize the economic advantages to mastering multiple languages in an era of globalization; many have clamored for more dual language schools and programs as a result, helping to legitimize and popularize the approach. And a growing body of research suggests that dual language education does not hinder a non-native speaker’s progress in English and may actually accelerate it over time if the programs are designed well.

Robert Linquanti, the project director for English language learner evaluation at the education research company WestEd, says the surging interest in dual language schools has, somewhat coincidentally, contributed to a “linguistic recuperation for Hispanic families,” who are now more valued for their knowledge of Spanish than in prior generations. There’s also been a subtle shift away from treating English language learners like special needs students. In Gadsden, for instance, the schools now gauge new students’ abilities based on how well they read, write, and comprehend their strongest language—whether or not that language is English.

New Mexico students at the state Spanish Spelling Bee in April 2011.
New Mexico students at the state Spanish Spelling Bee in April 2011.

Courtesy of New Mexico Association for Bilingual Education and National Spanish Spelling Bee

New recognition for Spanish language mastery also helps. The National Spanish Spelling Bee, for instance, has nurtured Spanish speakers’ pride. And, last year, New Mexico became one of a growing number of states to approve a seal of bilingualism or biliteracy for its high school graduation diploma, following other states, including California and New York. 

When Gadsden began expanding its dual language programs years ago, many Hispanic families opted out of the classes, according to Yturralde. Far fewer families make those requests today. Gadsden parent Lisa Rodriguez initially felt skeptical of the dual language program at Chaparral Elementary School, where her son now attends first grade. She worried his grades might suffer. Rodriguez grew up in an English-speaking home, while her husband grew up in a Spanish-speaking one. Both attended schools where English prevailed and assumed it would be the same for their children.

Rodriguez decided to give dual language education a try, partly because she wants her son to be able to communicate with his paternal grandmother, who speaks only Spanish. So half of her son’s instruction comes in Spanish, and half in English. “He’s reading in both languages,” she said. “I’m pretty proud.”

Increased acceptance alone does not produce bilingual and biliterate schoolchildren, however. And Gadsden and other districts across the country continue to face a big challenge: how, with limited resources and staff, to teach students of varied linguistic backgrounds and abilities not one language, but two.

Experts disagree over whether dual language programs require roughly even numbers of English- and Spanish-speaking students to work well. In an era of entrenched school segregation, that’s an elusive target for many schools. Regardless, schools hoping to implement dual language successfully usually need duplicate sets of materials and textbooks and a ready supply of multilingual instructors.

Strong teacher buy-in and training are also essential. At Chaparral, most of the students spend half their time with English-speaking teachers, and half with Spanish-speaking instructors. This requires an unusual degree of cooperation and collaboration between the partner teachers. “It’s like a marriage,” said Susan Yturralde, the district’s director of bilingual instruction. “You see some really powerful teaching when it’s going well.”

Rachel Sepulveda spent years teaching the English half of a dual language class at Chaparral before deciding that she wanted to do it all. Sepulveda struggled to get to know her students well enough when she taught them only half the time. “I wanted to be my own partner,” she says. So Sepulveda went back to school to acquire the training and language skills she needed to teach Spanish. (Sepulveda’s father spoke Spanish in the home but, like most students of her generation, she received mostly English instruction at school and lost much of her father’s native language.)

Sepulveda now teaches a class of Chaparral kindergarteners half in Spanish and half in English, a move she says has allowed her to get to know her students’ strengths and weaknesses more intimately. “In a dual-language school, I think it’s best if all the teachers are bilingual,” she says.

Yturralde, the superintendent, says he would like single, instead of paired, teachers to lead more of the district’s dual language classes. But even in a community with a rich diversity of linguistic backgrounds, this can be challenging, given the legacy of the monolingual approaches that have persisted in American schools for so long.

In Gadsden and other communities, the challenge moving forward will be to build bilingual programs that strike the right balance between acceptance and support—valuing non-English speakers while also recognizing that they might need extra help and resources. In a somewhat ironic twist, the primary responsibility for ensuring this happens in majority-Hispanic communities falls to teachers who often received little language acceptance and support themselves. But they may be in the best position to reinvent bilingual education precisely because they know the high stakes of failure, including both the crippling effects of not speaking English and the devastation of losing a linguistic heritage.