On the Sumac Elementary School playground, children play and sing in English, Spanish or a combination of both.
This neighborhood school in Agoura Hills is one of many emerging bilingual schools in California. The benefits of dual-language education are invaluable, and we should push for more bilingual programs in elementary education.
At Sumac, transitional kindergarten, kindergarten and first-grade classes are part of its dual-language immersion program. By 2023, all classes through fifth grade will be part of the DLIP. Sumac successfully introduced its first dual-language classroom in 2011 after extensive research on other bilingual schools, and parents’ responses to the program have been positive.
Sumac’s Principal Liberty Logan said one parent, who immigrated from Mexico as a child, attended a Las Virgenes Unified School District school and fought with classmates who bullied him for his bilingualism and heritage.
“It blows his mind that his children, just a generation later, are able to attend the same district and not only is the thing that for him made him an outcast makes these children special and powered and empowered,” Logan said.
Classes at Sumac are a 50-50 split between Spanish and English, with classes taught in blocks of each language. A literary lesson may be split between Spanish and English, followed by a math class completely in Spanish.
Many educators agree that exposing children to different languages at young ages makes acquisition easier because their brains are flexible and absorbent. The language skills students attain lead to greater capacities in both languages.
“It’s a sense of pride for them, what they can do in both languages,” said third-grade dual language teacher Eliana Castillo. “It takes a lot of effort and extra work on their part. They’re doing double the amount of work; they’re learning double the amount of words.”
The benefits of bilingual education go beyond language acquisition. Castillo said studies show that by seventh grade, students from bilingual classrooms outperform their English-only peers.
Referring to an article by KQED, Logan said, “We see that children have increased attention spans, greater levels of empathy, higher levels of reading. Parents and students have a higher level of school engagement.”
Students gain new friends and community through shared languages and appreciation for diversity. Sumac is the most ethnically diverse school in the school district, with nearly 40 percent of families identifying as Hispanic or Latino. Castillo said in her classroom, students find more cultural similarities with peers than differences.
Students from Spanish-speaking households have a community where their linguistic and cultural backgrounds are embraced. At many schools, non-fluent English learners may feel their native language is an obstacle instead of something to celebrate.
Sumac students from Spanish-speaking households make up 35 percent of the student body, and can act as models for their peers.
Robin Frank, an English Language Learner teacher at Sumac, said, “I always tell my students, ‘You’re so lucky that…we can speak English to you here and you go home to another language, because it makes your brain smarter.’”
Parents are beginning to see the value in bilingual education as well. At Sumac, families come from as far as Camarillo and Encino to attend. Logan said students receive the quality education of the Las Virgenes district, but in two languages.
“Parents understand the importance of having bilingualism,” Frank said. “When they come and they see their child, who’s English-only, speaking and singing and reading and writing in Spanish–it’s just amazing.”
Looking to the future, Frank said dual-language education prepares students for the globalized job market of the 21st century. Bilingual students will find more opportunities than their peers because of this advantage.
All students across the country should have these opportunities. In 2016, California passed Proposition 58, banning English-only education in public schools. We should push for bilingual and biliterate programs in all local schools, or promote the schools already giving children this opportunity.