In San Antonio’s Harlandale school district, pre-kindergarten students learn English and Spanish together. They help one another through instructions and assist each other in the language they are most familiar with, a structure that they’ll stick with until they reach sixth grade.
Similar programs can be found in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere as more and more parents want their children to speak more than one language. But as children under 5 are increasingly Latinos with Spanish spoken at home, such pre-K programs are becoming more vital.
Surprisingly though, when policies surrounding early education are discussed - as they increasingly are - there is limited focus on young children who are expanding their vocabularies in general, while learning to do so in more than one language, said Conor Williams, a senior researcher at New America Education Policy Program.
Take, for example, New York City, Williams said. Mayor Bill de Blasio expanded the city’s pre-kindergarten program by $300 million, opening up tens of thousands of slots for children, particularly low-income children, and stated a need to tailor the program to serve English language learners too.
“They had about six months to plan, an enormous undertaking. That had a few weeks of professional development where they tried to prepare their teachers for early education in general and two or three days … to teach these instructors cultural competency,” Williams said.
“This is often what happens when we expand our investments in pre-K and early ed. We think about it kind of like an inoculation … The truth is, it needs to be a lot more sophisticated than that and have some really good thought put in for how to serve English Language Learners well.”
Hoping to drive up that sophistication, New America has launched the Dual Language Learners National Working Group with grants from the Heising-Simons and McKnight Foundations.
The group has brought together organizations and experts hoping to bring more attention to the reality that English learning is a growing part of early learning.
“Because early learning is politically exciting right now, we want to make sure that what happens as we expand early learning is that these students, their unique linguistic and developmental needs are taken into account,” Williams said.
Williams said Harlandale and the city of San Antonio seem to be doing that. Head Start is trying to do it, though still needs improvement in instruction quality, he said.
Under the leadership of then-Mayor Julián Castro, now Housing and Urban Development secretary, the city of San Antonio raised its sales tax 1/8th of a cent in 2012 to pay for more children to attend full-day pre-K.
Harlandale, located on the city’s south side, is one of the city's poorest districts. All of its students qualify for free breakfast and lunch. It’s population is 97.3 percent Hispanic.
The district has had a dual language learning program long enough to see its first group of students hit middle school this year. Assessments on how they’ve performed are under way.
The program runs from pre-K through sixth grade and 90 percent of the day is spent giving instruction in Spanish, 10 percent in English in the first year, then 70-30 in the second and in the fourth and fifth grades it is 50-50. The students stay together through the six grades. The program is in place in all 13 of the district's elementary school campuses.
Because students assist one another in each other’s primary language, the children from English-speaking homes learn Spanish and vice versa. The 29 students who were first to particpate in the program and are now in sixth grade take three courses in Spanish and the rest in English.
Interestingly, just about all of the children are Latino, but because some are from homes that have spent many generations in Texas and are English speakers, their families have their children in the classes so they can grow up bilingual or so they can retain and improve what Spanish the do know, school officials said.
Previously, the English learners were not in classes with children whose first language is English.
“Either way it’s an enrichment program for both groups of students,” said Veronica Alvarez, Harlandale school district bilingual/English as a Second Language Coordinator.
"What we found and what research shows and the different studies that are out there, this is more of a program for groups of students to become more successful," Alvarez said.
According to the Urban Institute, from 2006 to 2011, growth in the number of children of immigrants accounted for all of the growth in the child population during those years. The number of children of native-born parents fell from 55.6 million to 55 million while children 0 to 17 grew from 15.7 million to 17.2 million.
But the majority of the children of immigrants, about 90 percent, are U.S. citizens. About half of the children have no parent who is English proficient, while 83 percent of the children are English proficient. About 10 percent of all American children in kindergarten through 12th grade are considered English language learners. In Head Start programs, the number is almost one in three, Williams said.
President Barack Obama has heavily promoted expansion of early education, raising the issue in his 2013 State of the Union.
Last year, Obama announced a $1 billion investment in public-private spending on programs, emphasizing increasing access to more children. His 2016 budget asks for $773 million for English language programs, $36 million more than in 2015, Ed Week reported.
Congress has taken up the reauthorization and rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (the No Child Left Behind law), originally passed in 1965 to address education inequities. While several different parts of the bill deal with English learners, a section that provided grants to states and districts for English learning programs was eliminated in early Republican proposals, said Delia Pompa of the National Council of La Raza.
But members of Congress have written new versions with much of the focus on eliminating some testing of students and how to hold school districts accountable for their students' achievement. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., added to the latest House version, approved in committee late Wednesday, an amendment that gives schools more time to raise proficiency levels of English learners before action is taken against the school if achievement levels fall short.
"My amendment ... provides these students _ many immigrant children _ adequate time to learn the lanaguage before their scores are held against their schools and teachers," Curbelo aid.
The No Child Left Behind Law passed in 2007 spotlighted English learners for the first time by collecting achievement data on English learners, Pompa said.
“Most importantly, they triggered interventions in schools to redirect resources to support the needs of traditionally underserved populations, and we’ve seen improvements of these populations,” Pompa said.
Often the programs rely on local funding, because federal and state funding is not provided for the English dominant children. Such is the case at Harlandale, said Carol Harle, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for the approximately 15,000-student district.
Harle said along with the growing dual language programs in San Antonio school districts, the city is seeing growth in day care centers that are either Spanish immersion day care or include caregivers who tell stories or sing in Spanish to help develop both skills for children.
"A child learns to read in one language, it doesn't matter whether it's English or Spanish, they learn to read," Alvarez said. "Once they understand the concept of reading they can transfer that to the other language very easily."