Nine-year-old Max English speaks three languages and wants to learn three more.
He learned German because his father is German. He learned English living in Tampa.
His mother, Nicole English, is a lifelong student of Spanish who was thrilled, along with his father, when they learned of a dual language program at Tampa’s Crestwood Elementary School. She got a job teaching kindergarten in the program where Max is now enrolled.
Today, Max says, “I can speak to more people who know different languages. And when I’m older, people will like to hire me.”
Families like Max’s are flocking to dual language programs.
The American Councils Research Center, a nonprofit group encouraging U.S. students to learn other languages and cultures, counted 3,600 programs in 2021, while a decade earlier about 1,000 were believed to exist. Parents are driven by research that suggests learning in multiple languages boosts brain power while making students more marketable and socially adaptable as adults.
“He’s getting an incredible cultural enrichment,” Nicole English said of her son. “I have no words for how enriching it is to be able to communicate with an entire community that’s outside of your home community.”
But, in meeting this demand, schools must also satisfy another compelling imperative: Closing achievement gaps for children who speak languages other than English at home. Nearly 40% of Hillsborough’s students are Hispanic. Many are classified as English language learners, who are sometimes enrolled in the dual language programs.
With limited resources, champions of dual language programs are beginning to wonder: How much more can they grow, and who will pay the bill?
Proponents of dual language consider it a vast improvement over older methods of bilingual education, which gradually eased children into English. The philosophy of dual language is that proficiency in the student’s first language — typically but not always Spanish — is an asset, not a liability. Through linguistic awareness, teachers say, the student becomes stronger in both languages — not just bilingual, but fully biliterate.
The practice dates back to the 1960s in Dade County, where Spanish is spoken in about two-thirds of all homes, and some Cuban exiles hope for a quick return to their homeland. Today, schools in South Florida offer multiple language choices, including Haitian Creole.
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Spanish dual language programs have been offered in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties over the years, but not as consistently.
Melissa Morgado, who began her career as a high school Spanish teacher and is now Hillsborough’s supervisor of world languages, launched dual language programs in 2017 at Crestwood and Bellamy elementary schools, both in Town ‘N Country, with large Hispanic populations.
Six years later, her department serves 12 schools with dual language programs, encompassing 85 teachers and nearly 1,700 students. Separately, four more Hillsborough schools have launched Spanish immersion programs under a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense.
The dual language enrollment numbers are growing exponentially as schools newer to the program must add another grade level every year. With the first wave of students having completed fifth grade, programs are underway at Shields, Smith and Pierce middle schools.
They do it all with a staff of two: Morgado and Verónica Schmidt-Gomez, a district resource teacher who was born in Puerto Rico.
Pinellas County is also moving into dual language with 200 students in Dunedin’s Garrison-Jones Elementary and a fledgling program at Walsingham Elementary in Largo. Graduates of Garrison-Jones can continue on at Clearwater’s Oak Grove Middle School next year.
“It just flows all around”
In both counties, students in all neighborhoods can apply through the choice system. That includes children with learning disabilities, who administrators say often thrive because of the individualized instruction built into the system.
Schools aim for an even split between English- and Spanish-speaking families, asking only that parents commit to the program throughout the elementary school years. Recruitment is often easiest among the English-speaking parents; Spanish speakers often have to be sold on the concept.
The teachers typically work in pairs. One will teach a class in math and science entirely in Spanish while the other teaches a reading class next door in English. Then they swap students for two more subjects so that each child gets equal exposure to each of the two languages during the academic hours of the day.
The approach is different in middle schools, where students change classrooms for each subject and have multiple teachers. A social studies teacher, for example, might give Monday’s lessons in Spanish and then switch to English on Tuesday, for a seamless transition between the two languages.
That’s how Schmidt-Gomez, the resource teacher, got to know Juan David Caicedo, then a sixth grader at Pierce who had arrived from Panama with his older sister after they lost their father to a heart attack. Caicedo said he spoke barely a few words of English the day he stepped off the plane in Orlando.
But in a matter of months he made the transition from classes for non-English speakers to more advanced English classes. He tackled timed readings in English. He puzzled over nouns that doubled as verbs — the phrase “watering the flowers,” for example.
By the eighth grade, he said, “English was now part of me. Any troubles that I had, English would no longer be one of them.” In keeping with the program’s goal of biliteracy, he learned concepts in math, science and other school subjects in both languages.
Now a senior in Leto High School’s collegiate program, Caicedo is active in student organizations and hopes to enter Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland with two years of college credits already earned.
“Many times I just think in English,” he said. “I notice how sometimes I think in Spanish, or I think in English, I alternate sometimes. It no longer interrupts my thought process, it just flows all around.”
While not all students will accomplish as much as Caicedo has, there is data that supports the system’s effectiveness.
At Crestwood Elementary, 85% of last year’s fifth grade dual language students passed the state math test and 68% passed the English language arts exam, even though some were brand new to the country. Those rates were nearly double those in the school as a whole. Similarly, at Garrison-Jones Elementary in Pinellas, passing rates for all subjects and all grades were between 17 and 35 points higher in state exams administered in the spring.
Researchers have questioned whether such success rates are influenced by the fact that families seek out these programs, which — as with any school choice option — can indicate higher levels of parental encouragement.
In a much-cited 2018 study in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina, researcher Andrew Bibler made adjustments for that variable by comparing the dual language results with those for other magnet school programs.
The dual language students still outperformed their peers.
Hurdles and rewards
Running such a program is hard — especially for Spanish language teachers, who often must create translated materials when they exist only in English.
“It’s double work, honestly,” said Mariangelie Vazquez-Llanis, a teacher at Garrison-Jones who moved to Florida after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017. But she said that when she sees her students make progress, both on their test scores and in their self-confidence, ”it doesn’t have a price.”
The schools scramble for resources. In Hillsborough, Tracie Bergman, a district literacy chief who believes firmly in the approach, has helped the schools obtain Spanish language phonics materials. Diane Sanchez, Crestwood’s principal and also a strong supporter, has found ways to purchase some materials with federal anti-poverty funds.
“I am creative, within my parameters,” said Sanchez, whose son, now in middle school, completed the Crestwood program.
As the program uses existing resources, such as teachers and classroom space, it is hard to estimate the costs. By their best guess, Morgado and Schmidt-Gomez said it adds up to $5,000 to $7,000 per school.
Those amounts do not include extra initiatives they have undertaken — such as arranging for Spanish language exhibits at Hillsborough’s yearly science fair. As Morgado explained, people tend to think of Hispanic heritage in terms of music, dance and food.
“But there’s a lot more to it,” she said. “There’s scientists and engineers and adventurers. We want the students to be able to identify with that as well.”
To many, the commitment is personal. Ginina Arroyo, a teacher and supervisor at Crestwood, sees aspects of her life in the children who enter her classroom, often as recent immigrants from Cuba.
Arroyo’s childhood was split between the mainland and Puerto Rico. For much of her life, she spoke no English. Married with three children, she moved to Florida at age 30, finished college and tried to get her teaching certificate.
But she had to take the state general knowledge exam 10 times before she could pass the essay portion. She has been with the dual language program from the beginning but was classified for the first several years as a long-term substitute teacher.
Like Vazquez at Garrison-Jones, Arroyo grows giddy at her students’ success. “Seeing them learn a new language, to read, to communicate, to have a better lifestyle in the United States, my heart’s going to explode,” she said.
When it comes to the program’s future growth, Morgado acknowledged there are mounting challenges. In some communities, there are concerns that the dual language movement is diverting resources from English learners as it succumbs to the demand from wealthier, English-speaking families.
“Many dual language programs are at risk of tilting toward language enrichment for English-dominant children, instead of advancing linguistic equity and expanding educational opportunity for (English language learners),” says a recent report for the progressive Century Foundation think tank.
Its authors cautioned that “without structures in place to protect equity,” dual language programs with high rates of success “can become colonization that eventually displaces” those still learning English.
The issue has led Hillsborough to focus primarily on schools with large Hispanic populations.
Staffing is a concern, too. Principals are advised to recruit bilingual teachers so they will be ready as their programs grow. And the Hillsborough staff overseeing dual language inevitably will have to be larger than two.
For now, Morgado said she is trying to create logical feeder patterns for children from the schools they already serve, meaning some parts of the county have to wait for the program to be offered in their area.
“We want to be very strategic and intentional with growth because that’s what has led to our success,” she said. “We don’t want to outgrow our capacity.”