Communication goes both ways in Anali Garibay’s second-grade classroom.
Last spring, inside her Mark Twain Elementary portable classroom, students got to work on a daily assignment, their desks formed into little clusters of four for collaboration.
Their task was a simple but fun one: Write about animals in both English and Spanish.
“Walking in here, you can’t tell who the natural Spanish speakers are and who the English speakers are,” Principal Chip Elfering commented.
Garibay’s classroom is dual language, meaning students interact with each other and engage with subjects in two languages.
The demand for bilingual education is growing in the Tri-Cities, with young English speakers seeking a second language and English learners looking for a more holistic program.
With roughly 2,190 students enrolled in 107 classrooms this year, Pasco has cemented itself as a leader in Washington state with one of the largest dual language programs.
Last spring, 76 Pasco High and Chiawana High graduates received their state seal of biliteracy along with their high school diplomas.
“Dual language really has goals focused on bilingualism, biliteracy, academic achievement and social-cultural competence,” said Carla Lobos, assistant superintendent of instruction at the Pasco School District.
Pasco is currently in the process of transitioning all its late-exit English classes into dual language programs so that English-learning students can also continue strengthening their household language.
Late-exit classes are focused primarily on catching English-language students up.
But dual language has been proven to be the most effective English development program for multilingual students and English learners.
Pasco expanded its programs this year to include classes serving K-3. For families who want it, the program works in conjunction with a curriculum that is the same as current state standards.
In August, Washington state Superintendent Chris Reykdal announced an ambitious plan to expand dual language access to all K-8 students by 2040, starting first with an $18.9 million investment over the next biennium.
The plan will be part of Reykdal’s budget request to the Legislature in January.
“The evidence is clear: When young people become bilingual during the early grades, they have more cognitive flexibility and they perform better in school,” Reykdal said in a statement. “As our global economy changes and our world becomes increasingly international, dual language education must become a core opportunity for our students.”
His plan includes funding to double the number of residency preparation programs for bilingual educators, as well as about $6 million in scholarships for teachers and paraeducators.
His plan would cost about $137 to $140 per student — about a 1% increase in basic education funding — to implement.
Washington already is currently the No. 1 state in the country when it comes to the number of dual language programs it currently offers.
About 35,000 students across 42 school districts and state-tribal education compact schools learn state standards in dual language classrooms.
Reykdal said expanding these programs statewide will only benefit Washington’s future workforce, as 9 out of 10 employers in the US say their business is “multilingual focused.”
“This asks our state Legislature to think about Washington state not as a state in the Union, but as its own entity in a global competition and give our students every opportunity in the world. And that means real investments immediately and sustaining those throughout time,” he said.
Benefits for English learners
Dual language classrooms “tip the scales” to the benefit of students not yet proficient in English, said Kristin Percy Calaff, OSPI’s director of multilingual education.
“It’s an important balance that really makes students see the importance of their own home language and develop that strength in their home language,” she said. “Their English will be stronger because their home language will be stronger.”
In Pasco, half of households speak a language other than English at home, US Census Bureau data shows.
That number is 26% for Kennewick households and 13% for Richland households.
“It’s value in our community, and we see language as an asset,” Lobos said.
The same benefits apply for English-speaking students.
“I think it rewired the way my brain works,” said Megan Wilkinson, a 2018 Pasco High graduate.
She took Spanish-English dual language curriculum from kindergarten through eighth grade, with half her classes towards the end comprising of Spanish-speaking curriculum. Wilkinson said it helped her better understand her science and math courses, and helped her “connect with a culture and community beyond just me.”
“(It) was the best choice,” she said. “A lot of the friends I know who went through this program still use Spanish and speak Spanish, and a lot of them came back to teach.”
She also plans to come back to Pasco and teach. When the Tri-City Herald spoke with her last spring, she was finishing her bachelor’s at The College of Idaho in Caldwell.
Although most dual language classes at Pasco are English-Spanish, the district also has English-Russian classes.
Strengthen cognitive skills
Studies have shown that allowing children to practice bilingualism may strengthen specific cognitive skills. But it’s not necessarily an indicator of higher intelligence or as a predictor of higher academic performance.
Bilingualism can also positively affect a student’s sociability, understanding of culture and employment opportunities.
“Typically, a child at age 5 has learned less than 50% of their own language,” said Percy Calaff. “By continuing that development in their own language, they’re going to reach higher levels of English development and transfer that into their own language.”
Strengthening students cognitive skills in their first language can also transfer over to learning other languages. There’s also studies, she said, that biliteracy can delay Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Elfering said dual language students often collaborate more. The problem solving challenges of early dual language learning also translate to positives at the high school level, too.
But it’s not all easy for kindergartners to learn a whole new language. Challenges and frustrations do develop, Percy Calaff said.
But retention in dual language classrooms is typically very high and young students, whose brains are typically better at learning language than adults, can quickly grasp new concepts.
“Typically, in just a few weeks, they’re already trying to use the language,” Percy Calaff said.
Richland, Kennewick dual language
As of last year, Kennewick School District operates a total of 68 dual language classrooms for K-8 students. Fifty-three of those classrooms are in K-5 buildings, and the district operates 13 for middle schoolers.
Richland School District this fall will open their first dual language classrooms.
Students who need help developing English language proficiency currently receive assistance in a general education environment.
“We don’t have near the number of dual language speakers as Pasco or Kennewick,” said Richland spokesperson Ty Beaver.
Over the summer, Richland School District hosted a four-week program for English learners and migrant students to develop their English.
“There was a lot of peer-to-peer help and mentoring taking place. Students would help others with word pronunciations and language. It was really exciting to see,” English Language Arts Teacher Makynzie Frost said in a statement.
Students’ first languages included Mandarin Chinese, Ukrainian, Russian, Portuguese, Thai and Spanish. One student said it helped them be “more confident in my English.”