May 23, 2023 - Education

The state of San Francisco’s dual language immersion programs

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Representation of non-native English language learners in San Francisco's dual language immersion programs shrank between 2015 and 2020, according to new research.

What's happening: In San Francisco, there are 21 schools that offer dual language immersion programs with Cantonese, Spanish, Mandarin or Korean.

  • Yes, but: Enrollment shares of first-time English language learners shrank in 11 of those schools from 2015 to 2020, according to the study.
  • Meanwhile, enrollment of white native-English speakers increased in five of the district's total schools with dual language programs, according to the report.

Why it matters: The explosion of dual language immersion programs could result in a "colonization" that displaces non-native English learners if programs aren't strategic about ensuring equity, Axios' Astrid Galván reports.

What they're saying: SFUSD's enrollment process "ensures priority access" for non-native English language learners in its dual language immersion programs, Laura Dudnick, a spokesperson for the school district, told Axios via email.

  • SFUSD reserves two-thirds of its available seats for English learners and students who speak the program's additional language at home, Dudnick said. The remaining third seats go to native-English speakers.
  • If a dual language program is unable to meet that two-thirds threshold, the program will shift to 50% representation of English learners and students who speak the second language at home, "which is still a research-supported strategy for student achievement," she said.
  • Annually, about 20% of SFUSD graduates receive a seal of biliteracy, demonstrating their proficiency in English and another language.

The big picture: Nationally, about 10% of students in K-12 public schools are English learners, meaning they are learning English for the first time.

  • That percentage is even higher in San Francisco, where 27% of students in the San Francisco Unified School District are English language learners.
  • These students often struggle academically and were severely affected by pandemic school closures, according to a recent study.

Details: Conor P. Williams, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, and other researchers examined 1,600 dual-language immersion programs in 13 states and Washington, D.C., and found that the share of first-time English learners in a majority of programs in several cities declined over the past five years, while the share of white native-English speakers increased.

What to watch: Education leaders should consider establishing programs in neighborhoods with a high percentage of non-native English speakers to ensure equity among the student body, the researchers of the new study say.

  • They also recommend that state and federal governments create competitive grants for schools interested in establishing their dual language programs.
  • The researchers say education leaders should address the bilingual teacher shortage by creating a pipeline and establishing provisional teacher licenses for adults with college degrees who are proficient in the non-English languages being taught in dual immersion programs.

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