The Salem Public Schools are proud to be opening a Spanish-English dual-language program next fall, serving 50 kindergarten students in its inaugural class. Families of incoming kindergarteners will have the opportunity to select the dual-language program when completing the district’s kindergarten application and school choice process. The program’s student population will be comprised of one-third Spanish-speaking English Learners, one-third bilingual students, and one-third native English-speaking students. This linguistic mix is an important element of the new program, where each student’s home language and culture combine to create a rich resource in each classroom. The program will be housed at the Bentley School and grow by one grade level each year, as next year’s kindergarten students continue on as first graders and a new cohort of kindergarteners enter the program.

Salem joins cities across the commonwealth in reviving dual-language education, a result of the state LOOK Act, which lets districts select language acquisition programming that fits the needs of their English learners, while ensuring accountability through state oversight. Salem previously had a dual-language program, and dual-language programs thrive in several Massachusetts urban districts, including Boston, Cambridge, Framingham, Worcester and Brockton.

Approaches to serving English Learners (ELs) exist that prioritize the learning of English at the expense of a student’s native language and literacy skills, including Transitional Bilingual Education (TBE) and Sheltered English Immersion (SEI). These approaches mean students who speak languages other than English at home are treated as needing remediation or lacking in skills and knowledge; proficiency in a language other than English is viewed as a problem rather than an asset. TBE uses students’ initial language and literacy skills to build upon and teach English, slowly decreasing the amount of instruction in another language until the student learns only in English. However, research shows beneficial outcomes for students when they learn a second language while also developing their first language, not extinguishing it. Outcomes include positive self-identity and biliteracy, traits that are hugely beneficial on many levels in a changing world. Dual-language programming is an approach that explicitly values a student’s native language by teaching academic content in the partner language and equating the importance of the partner language with English.

In dual-language classrooms, Spanish-speaking students use their families’ language to engage in scientific inquiry, solve math problems and engage in class discussions. Classrooms become places where Spanish is one of two languages of academic excellence and interpersonal communication among and between students and their teachers. Instead of developing social and academic English language skills in ESL classes while separated from peers, ELs in a dual-language setting learn alongside their peers as experts and mentors during the instructional periods in Spanish, and vice versa for Spanish learners.

English Learners and Former English Learners (FELs) in Salem comprise most of the high school seniors who earn the state Seal of Biliteracy upon graduation. The seal is a new honor and its attainment will predictably increase with dual-language programming, as more students of all backgrounds deeply study Spanish. There are many factors that contribute to the rate of language development and academic achievement of the 700-plus students in Salem who are designated as ELs or FELs. Students’ age of arrival in the United States, socioeconomic status, literacy in their first language and circumstances of immigration all affect a student’s language acquisition in school. Salem currently serves ELs using SEI, which is instruction in content areas in English, with specialized daily language support from an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher. The district will continue to offer the SEI approach in all schools, although now, because of the flexibility provided by the LOOK Act, Salem can offer parents another option, dual language, for their English Learners, starting right in kindergarten.

While bilingual education continues to be rare across the United States and in Massachusetts, it is important to remember that most of the world is, in fact, bilingual or multilingual. More than half of Europeans are functionally bilingual and able to hold a conversation in two languages, while a quarter of Europeans can hold a conversation in three, and 10% in three or more languages.

Bilingual students reap a variety of benefits. Transferring the vocabulary and literacy skills in their first language to a second allows them to crack the code of English or Spanish literacy more quickly by applying knowledge from their first language to the new puzzle. Since language and culture are deeply intertwined, bilingual students gain cross-cultural perspective and build empathy more readily through navigation of two languages. Young learners in next year’s dual-language program will more quickly build friendships and close ties to students who are racially or linguistically different . These relationships will enable students to more easily work and thrive in diverse environments and groups, an undeniably important skill in a globalizing world. In short, dual-language programming allows Salem’s community of learners to benefit from the rich diversity of our city.

Rebecca Westlake is the director of English Language Learning and Bilingual Education, Deb Connerty is the acting executive director of Pupil Personnel Services, and Nancy Meacham is the ELL coordinator. This is one in a monthly series of columns from the Salem Partnership’s Community Advisory Board for the Salem Public Schools.

Recommended for you