SAISD's Dr. Olivia Hernandez talks with principal's and assistant principal's during a dual-language training session at the Pickett Academy Tuesday morning.
SAISD's Olivia Hernández talks with principals and assistant principals during a dual-language training session at Pickett Academy Tuesday morning. Credit: Robin Jerstad for the San Antonio Report

When San Antonio Independent School District opens its doors for the 2018-19 school year, 32 campuses will implement a new dual language program, bringing the district’s total offering to 45 schools.

Students enrolled in the program will be taught English and Spanish in tandem in an effort to strengthen both languages, whereas traditional bilingual programs tend to use Spanish instruction only as a means to obtain English proficiency, Olivia Hernández, SAISD’s assistant superintendent for the Bilingual/ESL and Migrant Department, said.

Even though each class will be structured around a 50-50 ratio of native English to native Spanish speaking students, Hernández said the program is directed toward English language learners (ELLs) or students who consider a dialect other than English as their native language and have difficulty performing ordinary classwork in English.

Schools traditionally have used a bilingual program that focuses on getting students up to speed with English, but not strengthening Spanish at the same time, Hernández said. Dual language is different; it aims to fortify the native Spanish language and embrace a student’s identity.

“We cannot wait [to offer better programming] for our English language learners,” Hernández said of the district’s close to 10,000 students who qualify as ELLs. “We’ve had a remedial bilingual program for the last 50 years in this country.”

In 2016-17, only two SAISD campuses offered the dual language program. This number grew to 13 schools last year and will more than triple next year because of demand from individual principals who started reaching out to Hernández last year.

Most of the participating campuses will offer the program in one or two classrooms in pre-kindergarten through third grade with the plan to phase in grades four and five in the next two years. The majority of SAISD’s ELL students are native Spanish speakers and in grades pre-kindergarten through five.

Next year, Hernández hopes to expand the dual language program at the middle school level. Doing this can be hard without a firm foundation in both languages, which is why SAISD placed the greatest emphasis on the elementary level first.

“We want our kids to leave elementary school with a strong foundation in both Spanish and English, but also have the goal of them understanding both cultures,” Hernández said. “Once they are in middle school and have that strong foundation, we have high expectations for them to take pre-AP [and] AP courses.”

Marco Morales, principal of J.T. Brackenridge Elementary School, is one of the 32 school leaders who will implement the program on his campus for the first time next year.

In 2017, Morales worked in Houston ISD where he inquired about starting a dual language program, but at the time, his campus didn’t have enough native English speakers to balance out the native Spanish speakers. But in SAISD, with a large group of both students from which to choose, Morales plans to open up one class in a few grade levels to dual language education.

“The goal is to make Spanish-speaking families more comfortable to come to J.T. Brackenridge and creating a more safe and nurturing learning environment to teach both Spanish and English [students,]” Morales said.

In addition to the 43 schools that will offer the program in a limited format, two SAISD in-district charters – Mark Twain Dual Language Academy and Irving Dual Language Academy – will operate as 100 percent dual language campuses at which all classrooms instruct in both Spanish and English. This will enhance the bilingual learning environment, Hernández said, because it will enrich the entire school with both languages and cultures.

“Where you have English, English is always going to come through the windows, through the cracks,” Hernández told the Rivard Report.

During the past year, Irving Dual Language Academy Principal Olivia Almanza worked to prepare for the opening of her immersive school, which will open with its first class of pre-kindergarten through second grade students in 2018-19.

Almanza, who hails from the Rio Grande Valley, said she can appreciate how important a dual language education is.

“It is about maintaining the first language, while also adding in a second and developing the skills to have a more global education,” Almanza said, noting that she has 20 to 30 families on the waitlist for her younger grades.

The Irving principal said she has had to recruit families to enroll for the second grade, however, and believes it might be because starting dual language education at a slightly older age is less common. Parents may not know the program is offered if their students haven’t previously experienced it at a younger age.

Hernández noted principals and staff often have to put in this kind of work to achieve the optimal class balance among native languages.

“What we don’t want to do is to gentrify it,” she said, “where the native English speaker is taking it over.”

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.