Philadelphia, once a pioneer in bilingual education, now lags

Part of the reason is state policy. But several schools have adopted the dual-language immersion model.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

For Evelyn Nunez, Philadelphia’s recent progress in bilingual education is personal.

Nunez, who says she is a product of the Philadelphia School District, recalled her first day of kindergarten when she walked into the classroom not knowing a single word of English. Her teacher didn’t know any Spanish.

“I remember my mother, for many years, not being able to speak to my teachers or the principal and always finding a neighbor to translate,” she said. “I experienced the need for bilingual education very early in my life.”

Now Nunez is the principal of Lewis Elkin Elementary in Kensington, one of six elementary schools in the Philadelphia School District that have implemented Spanish-English dual-language immersion programs in the last three years. Five of those programs – at Elkin, Cayuga, Alexander McClure, Muñoz-Marin and Bayard Taylor — are located in North Philadelphia neighborhoods that have historically been home to large Puerto Rican and Dominican communities. These neighborhoods are still predominantly Latino and the strong Puerto Rican and Dominican populations remain, and now they have the added diversity of other Spanish-speaking populations, including Mexicans and Central Americans.

Philadelphia, where 12 percent of public school students are English learners, has had a long history of experimenting with bilingual education. And recently, the city has seen a boost in enthusiasm for more comprehensive dual-language immersion programs.

But maintaining and expanding such programs has long been difficult, largely due to shifting state and federal priorities and fraught political debates over the years about how to assimilate immigrant students and teach them English.

Philadelphia has also had a particular problem in embracing bilingual education with the same vigor as other cities with high numbers of English learners. This is because Pennsylvania, unlike most other states, has never instituted a separate, stand-alone certification for teaching ESL – English for speakers of other languages. And its certification exams are administered only in English, which limits hiring for bilingual programs where teachers only need to be completely proficient in their native language.

For these and other reasons, recruiting a diverse teacher force has been an issue. According to District data, just 3 percent of teachers identify as Hispanic and 2 percent are Asian, although those figures don’t necessarily correspond to how many speak other languages or are qualified to teach English learners.

From a transitional approach to dual-language immersion

Elkin, Cayuga, McClure, Muñoz-Marin, and Taylor have had transitional Spanish programs in the past for kids learning English, but as the students in the dual-language immersion program get older (they are now in 3rd grade), the transitional programs are gradually being phased out in favor of the dual-language model, which emphasizes bilingualism and bi-literacy rather than simply English proficiency.

The sixth program is at Southwark Elementary in South Philadelphia, and it came out of parent and community support for bilingual education. But unlike the others, its dual-language model was created from scratch rather than replacing or modifying an existing program. In South Philadelphia, Spanish-speaking families pushed for the dual-language immersion program because it allows their children to become fluent English-speaking adults while they maintain their mother tongue in a culturally accepting environment. And English-speaking families jumped on the opportunity to help their children become bilingual when research shows that it has overwhelming academic and career-related benefits.

To have a successful dual-language immersion program, the class needs to be made up of roughly half English-dominant students and half Spanish-dominant students.

At Southwark, these two student populations come from largely separate communities, which is largely how the research about dual-language immersion programs has been structured. Most often, the native English students have middle-class professional parents, most of them white, and the native Spanish speakers come from low-income immigrant families.

But in schools like Elkin, the lines between the two groups are much more blurred as the families in the dual-language program share a common culture, if not a common tongue. Most students come in with at least some exposure to both languages.

“We have an overlap," Nunez said. "The majority of our students are Latinos, however, the majority of our students are English-dominant because they have been in the States for so long.” Still, roughly half of the parent base would prefer to communicate with Nunez in Spanish.

At Elkin, there are two classes per grade in the dual-language program, and each class spends half the day with a teacher who teaches subjects in English and the other half with a teacher who teaches in Spanish. Both the math and literacy blocks are taken in both classrooms.

Tanya Johnson, who teaches 1st graders in English, said that the model forces her and her Spanish-speaking counterpart to plan everything together, including daily lesson plans and how to approach students who may be struggling with certain concepts. Although the collaboration makes the process of teaching a bit more complicated, the benefits of working as a team far outweigh the extra logistical layer.

“I think what I like most about it is that it is fostering an importance of Spanish culture because it’s different from the previous model, which was phasing out their Spanish language,” said Johnson, “In the working world, to be actually fluent in both languages, that’s a huge skill. They are really lucky to have that experience.”

Pioneering bilingual education

While these dual-language Spanish-English programs have only been in place for the last few years, Philadelphia has a long and involved history with bilingual education.

Nelson Flores, assistant professor at Penn’s Graduate School of Education and the primary researcher for the Philadelphia Bilingual Education Project, has been studying the city’s place in the bilingual education landscape, both now and historically. According to his research, Philadelphia once was at the forefront of the U.S. bilingual education movement.

In the early 1970s, a woman named Eleanor Sandstrom introduced bilingual education models to Philadelphia. Sandstrom was the director of the District’s Office of Foreign Languages and she believed in an additive model for bilingual education – meaning that students were taught a second language, English, while maintaining their primary language and culture.

Before Sandstrom, the District had transitional models and speaking a foreign language was seen as a problem, rather than an asset. Sandstrom, who Flores called the “mother of bilingual education in Philadelphia,” shifted perspectives at the District level, emphasizing that foreign language abilities should be considered a resource.

Sandstrom acquired Title VII funding for bilingual education programs. With the additional resources, the District created an ESL pilot program, a Bilingual Institute to train and recruit teachers, and opened up the Potter-Thomas Bilingual School, which for decades served as a national model for bilingual education.

“[Potter Thomas] had national attention because it was the whole school model, and that really included all of the students,” explained Flores. “It was very much counter what one would expect during that time period, where bilingual education was primarily framed as a remedial program for students who were learning English.”

The school, he said, was “ahead of the curve in thinking of bilingualism as a resource that all children in a school could benefit from and have and celebrate.”

Sandstrom also implemented smaller-scale programs that resembled “mini-bilingual schools within schools” throughout the city to serve Philadelphia’s growing Puerto Rican population.

In 1972, the Pennsylvania secretary of education released guidelines for bilingual education or ESL education for all non-dominant English students. And despite Sandstrom’s efforts to implement bilingual education models in enough schools to reach all students for whom English was a second language, the District was still falling short.

Although the District had the scaffolding in place for increased access to bilingual education for Spanish-speaking students, those opportunities still were not reaching all of them. According to Flores’ research, members of the Puerto Rican community said that “out of the 9,000 Spanish-speaking students in Philadelphia, bilingual programs [in 1972] reached only half of them. Moreover, a 1974 Pennsylvania State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report on the educational and housing conditions of Puerto Ricans noted that Puerto Rican students had the highest dropout rates in the district.”

But despite the setbacks and issues surrounding access, Philadelphia was, in many ways, leading the country in terms of progressive bilingual education.

“[Philadelphia] was definitely ahead of the curve, especially at Potter-Thomas,” said Flores.

But two years later, the Bilingual Education Act was revised so that federal funding could not be used for two-way immersion programs. Additionally, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Lau v. Nichols changed the mandates for non-English speaking students with the Office of Civil Rights emphasizing transitional programs.

So just as the District was trying to expand the presence of bilingual education, the federal funding started to dry up. However, according to Flores, “generally, the District apparently continued its commitment to not only a bilingual but a bicultural approach to the education of both English and Spanish-dominant children.” The School District started to absorb the costs associated with the programs.

U.S. focus moves to transitional models

In the 1980s, with a more conservative political climate, the national conversation about bilingual education shifted further toward transitional models and the “English-only” movement. Flores found that “federal initiatives limited and terminated many educational programs in languages other than English.”

Philadelphia was no different. The 1980s saw District cuts to bilingual programs, and 50 percent of the bilingual education personnel (91 bilingual teachers) were eliminated as part of an effort to reduce the District’s deficit. Spanish-speaking students made up 10 percent of the District’s total enrollment at the time. Criticism of the programs shifted from an argument that bilingual resources needed to be expanded to serve more students to an argument that questioned whether the programs actually worked and whether bilingual education should exist at all.

Almost all of the programs in Philadelphia shifted back to transitional models, except for Potter-Thomas school, which continued to be a whole school bilingual education model.

By the late 1990s, bilingual education had begun to make a comeback.

In 1997, Flores said, “There were 202 dual-language immersion programs nationwide in 100 school districts, compared to only 30 in 1987.”

The trend was reflected in Philadelphia as well. That same year, the District established the Office of Language Equity Issues. In 1998, South Philadelphia High School established a bilingual Chinese program and a Newcomer Center, which was an alternative high school program for recently resettled refugees and immigrants. A Chinese bilingual program was also established at McCall Elementary and programs in Vietnamese and Cambodian, among other languages, were established to match the influx of Asian immigrants and refugees who had come in large numbers. From 1980 to 1990, the Asian population in Philadelphia increased by 145 percent. Programs in Russian and other languages also existed during this period.

But once again, funding changed the course of events for bilingual programs in Philadelphia. After the rise of charter schools and the state takeover of the District, it became easier for bilingual advocates and community organizations (such as ASPIRA) to launch their own charter schools rather than implement bilingual programs in neighborhood schools. And with drastic budget cuts, most of the dual-language programs shifted to charter schools.

The latest shift

However, in the last few years, that has started to shift again, and this time there is optimism that it will stick. Unlike before, the funding for these models is not coming from federal sources, like Title VII grants, so programs may not be tied to the whims of the federal government. Although some of the programs are using Title III funding for supplemental materials, Flores said, “there is nothing specifically earmarked for bilingual education or dual-language instruction that’s being used, so in that sense, I hope that maybe it can become more sustainable since it is not relying on single source of funding that can go away.”

Erica Darken, a curriculum development specialist for the Office of Multilingual Curriculum and Programs, said that the District is committed to bilingual education as a way to incorporate and embrace Philadelphia’s multicultural makeup, but perhaps even more important, because it just makes academic sense.

“Research shows that students will do better, including academically and on standardized tests, when their native language is included for at least 50 percent of the classroom time,” she said. The decision to shift the existing transitional programs to dual-language immersion programs was made at District headquarters after the research definitively showed increased academic success, and Darken said they remain committed to that decision.

As in years past, these trends in Philadelphia are reflective of national trends, but this time Philadelphia is behind rather than a pioneer. In New York City, 39 new bilingual programs, 29 of them dual-language immersion programs, opened this academic year, according to the city’s Department of Education. This is in addition to about 180 dual-language programs that already existed in elementary and high schools across the city. These programs are for languages that have been popular in the past, such as Spanish and Chinese, but also Arabic, French, Haitian-Creole, Hebrew, Korean, Polish, and Russian.

Going forward

As support for bilingual programs continues to grow, some are pushing for more. There is talk about proposing a Mandarin program at Vare-Washington Elementary, and the proposal seems to be generating enthusiasm from parents and the surrounding community. But implementing bilingual programs effectively takes resources and planning and certainly involves overcoming hurdles.

The biggest of these challenges is staffing.

“It is a very difficult model, and things need to be taken into consideration,” said Nunez, “and getting individuals that are totally fluent in Spanish is difficult.”

The biggest problem is that many teachers who were certified in their home countries and are Spanish-speaking need to pass state certifications that are only conducted in English. For Nunez, this is frustrating because in the model she uses, where there is a Spanish teacher and an English teacher, she doesn’t need the Spanish teacher to be proficient in English. In fact, she would prefer someone who wasn’t proficient in English so the teacher would be less likely to code-switch with students.

“I would highly recommend that the rigor of the exam should remain the same … but the language of administration should change,” she said, opening up many more staffing options.

Darken agrees that more bilingual programs are desirable, and also emphasizes that staffing presents a particular challenge. Among the consequences of Pennsylvania’s not having a state bilingual certification is the lack of awareness among the state’s teachers that there are even bilingual teaching options available. The District is trying to counter this with increased recruitment strategies.

But both Darken and Nunez remain notably optimistic. For Darken, the public support for bilingual education is encouraging. And for Nunez, who has been fighting for bilingual education for decades, the District’s commitment is incredibly exciting.

“We are attracting more diverse teachers, and the support is there,” said Nunez, emphasizing that this has not always been the case. She says this creates a rare opportunity to capitalize on a trend that could help thousands of students, English language learners and native English speakers alike.

“Comparing my experience with the District 15 years ago and now,” she said, “I think the District is fully ready to implement more bilingual programs."