Jorge Triana, a second grade dual language teacher shares a lesson with children on their first day at Democracy Prep at Stewart Elementary.
Jorge Triana, a second grade dual language teacher shares a lesson with children at Democracy Prep at Stewart Elementary. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

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The story of San Antonio is one imbued with a rich bilingual history. From San Antonio being one of the first cities to desegregate schools after Brown v. Board of Education to the first Texas Association for Bilingual Education meeting taking place in 1972 at Karam’s restaurant on Zarzamora Street to San Antonio students in Lanier and Edgewood high schools in the 1960s rising up against systemic racial prejudice to San Antonio native Senator Joe Bernal leading the first Texas Bilingual Education Act that repealed the 1918 English-only law in Texas, San Antonio has been a pillar of advocacy for equitable bilingual education.

In a school district with over 90% Latinx student population with generations of families that have lost the Spanish language over time, families of recent immigrants from Latin America, and families that have fought to maintain their Spanish by reinforcing its use at home, bilingual education is especially critical. That’s why in 2016 San Antonio ISD undertook an initiative to create a paradigm shift in the way bilingual education is understood and delivered across the district. 

With the support of the SAISD Board of Trustees, Superintendent Pedro Martinez, and the Bilingual Redesign Committee, the SAISD Dual Language Department has had the privilege of collaborating with educators and parents who have brought the cultural richness of the San Antonio community into redesigning bilingual education. Together, district members and community stakeholders have shared their language and culture stories — remembering, reimagining, and reframing what bilingual education can look and feel like for their students and bridging the gap between students’ home and school lives.

Now, after five years of expanding dual language programs across the district, San Antonio ISD has established an 80-20 dual language immersion model as the designated model for all emergent bilingual students in the district. SAISD joins other Texas urban school districts — including Austin ISD, Dallas ISD, and El Paso ISD — in amending local policy to ensure a higher degree of educational equity for their emergent bilingual students. 

The 80-20 dual language model ensures students develop a strong foundation in Spanish as they also acquire the English language. The model starts with 80% of instruction in Spanish and 20% of instruction in English in pre-K and gradually adds more English every year until fourth grade, when students receive 50% of their instruction in each language. Research consistently finds that the experience of immersion in Spanish has an incredible effect on enhancing academic achievement and English language acquisition. The 80-20 dual language model also has the added benefit of ensuring that Spanish-speaking students do not fall behind in developing cognitive processes, including the ability to read and write, which transfer from one language to another.

These benefits have significant positive effects for emergent bilinguals, the Texas Education Agency’s updated term for students previously classified as English language learners, English learners, and limited English proficient. Emergent bilingual students have demonstrated that they can excel when they receive instruction in Spanish and English from a bilingual teacher who can expertly make cross-linguistic connections during instruction. 

Currently, approximately 7,000 students are served through dual language education in San Antonio ISD, of which 1,256 are English-speakers joining their emergent bilingual peers in the two-way dual language program with the goal of becoming bilingual, biliterate, and multicultural. The benefits of dual language education have been proven to be equally beneficial for both emergent bilinguals and English speakers; however, the district’s policy prioritizes dual language education enrollment for emergent bilingual students.

Secondary dual language programs were launched in 2018 and are designed to serve Spanish-speaking emergent bilingual students struggling in ESL pullout programs at the middle and high school level. Approximately 1,300 students at the secondary level participate in dual language programs in middle and high school, taking courses such as biology, algebra, history, chemistry, and physics in Spanish. 

These secondary dual language programs have yielded remarkable academic and sociocultural benefits. Students report feeling a sense of belonging in their secondary dual language courses. They are also out-performing emergent bilingual students in non-dual language courses on district short-cycle assessments. The secondary dual language program also offers all students enrolled in the program the opportunity to participate in dual credit coursework offered through the University of Texas at San Antonio and Alamo Colleges. This dual language-dual credit experience includes Mexican American studies taught in Spanish with renowned UTSA professor Liliana Patricia Saldaña.

Expanding dual language programs across elementary and secondary grade levels and establishing dual language education as the designated program for emergent bilinguals are critical steps in San Antonio ISD’s journey toward providing educational equity and access through language. Since 2016, there has been a growing focus in the district to bridge the gap between Spanish-speaking students’ home and school environments in order to leverage the assets and funds of knowledge of all members of the San Antonio community while simultaneously honoring the city’s rich Latinx cultural identity. Over the past five years, emphasis has been placed not only on providing quality instruction in Spanish, but also to increase communication with parents and the community through resources, events, and announcements provided in authentic Spanish so that all parents and community members have ample opportunity to actively be involved in their children’s education.  

Bilingualism is in the city’s lifeblood. Functionally bilingual citizens make this beautiful San Antonio community run culturally, socially, artistically, and economically. For a long time now, the societal marketplace of this city has been calling for a bilingual education program that produces bilingual and multicultural individuals who can run our social systems and take them boldly into the future. But our educational institutions have not openly heeded that call. Today, that call is stronger than ever, and San Antonio ISD has taken a wonderful opportunity to respond to it loudly, decisively y con mucho orgullo.

Olivia Hernández

Olivia Hernández is SAISD Assistant Superintendent for Learning, Language & Literacy.

Esmeralda Alday

Esmeralda Alday is SAISD Executive Director of Dual Language, ESL & Migrant.