Bilingual Independent Study: How One California District Makes It Work



Courtesy of Rebecca Flores

Zoe Flores, in fourth grade at Montebello Unified, shows books written in Spanish.

To enroll in bilingual education in most California school districts, you must attend classes in person. It’s too hard to find enough bilingual teachers and too hard to teach a new language online, most districts say.

But one district, Montebello Unified, near Los Angeles, takes up those challenges and offers bilingual classes to independent students.

This was not the district’s plan at the start of the school year. In fact, the neighborhood started the year with only online English classes. But district officials reconsidered their decision after the parents pushed back.

Zoe Flores’ family was one of those who wanted an independent double immersion study. Her parents are bilingual but speak to Zoe at home in English. Learning Spanish at school is important for Zoe’s parents, as both groups of grandparents speak more Spanish than English, and the language she learned at school has helped her. to communicate and bond with them. It was especially helpful for Zoe to be able to communicate with her maternal grandmother, who had terminal lung cancer and died in July 2020.

Courtesy of Rebecca Flores

The Spanish Zoe Flores learned in school helped her bond with her grandmother.

“I am so blessed that Zoe is able to double online and bond with her grandmother,” said her mother, Rebecca Flores. “Her cousins ​​speak sort of Spanish, but with Zoe being in double immersion, she knows the language. It definitely tied them together, and it’s just beautiful to see.

Flores’ parents were planning to send her to school in person this year, but seeing Covid-19 cases increase, they panicked. Zoe, 9, suffers from asthma. After consulting with her pediatrician, Zoe’s parents decided to enroll her in an independent study due to the risk of her contracting Covid-19 at school.

“As parents it was very difficult for us because we really wanted her to be back in person, but the numbers kept pouring in, so we said we couldn’t,” said Flores.

During the first two weeks of August, Zoe had classes only in English for the first time since kindergarten. Fearing that her daughter might lose some of her Spanish skills, Flores pushed the district to offer their double immersion program online. Many other parents too.

“They thought that because the kids had been enrolled in double immersion for many years, having a year of English, they thought it would put their students back in learning the language,” said Kaivan Yuen, deputy superintendent of services. education in unified Montebello.

In response, Montebello Unified has decided to offer a few independent study courses in double immersion to accommodate students who request them. Since the number of students choosing the independent study was small, the district combined the scores. Currently, there are 59 students enrolled in double immersion independent studies in the district, with three teachers. By comparison, 934 students are enrolled in double immersion in person.

“The teachers are very grateful to have this program. Parents don’t have to worry about their kids missing a year, ”Yuen said.

Flores saw a change in Zoe right away. Recently, she heard about Ellen Ochoa, the first Latina to go to space.

“As we were learning together, she said, ‘Mami, do you know this? Did you know she is the first Latina astronaut? ‘ ”Said Flores. “I just saw her blossom, academically, but also personally, because dual language is what she was used to since kindergarten.”

Yuen said Montebello Unified was already recruiting bilingual teachers for in-person classes, so they were able to find teachers that way. Other teachers who were already teaching in bilingual classes wanted to teach virtually this year.

Guadalupe Inda is one of Montebello Unified’s independent double immersion teachers, teaching a combination of kindergarten and first grade with 25 students in Spanish and English. The program gave Inda a chance to return to bilingual education. She taught bilingual classes for 12 years, but began teaching only in English after California banned bilingual education in 1998. Now, not only is she back in teaching bilingual classes, but she is also back in the neighborhood where she grew up.

“Being back in a community where they value our language again, which is Spanish, was important. I wanted to be back in a community making sure these kids have an experience where their language is valued, and we also have kids who don’t primarily speak Spanish, ”said Inda.

In the independent study program, Inda said she relies on parents to get involved and help their children with their work at home. In a way, she said, it’s a blessing.

“The most important part in the primary levels is having that connection with the community,” said Inda. “They hold me responsible as much as I hold them responsible. “

On the California Department of Education website, the department states that “bilingual, bilingual and other language acquisition programs may continue to be part of an independent study program. Independent study programs provide opportunities to deepen and capitalize on students’ use of the language spoken at home.

But most districts in the state do not offer bilingual or bilingual programs as part of their independent study programs. Other districts contacted by EdSource cited the lack of teachers with bilingual credentials and the difficulty of teaching the language online as the main reasons for not offering bilingual education in independent study.

“Teaching basic content areas in Spanish to non-Spanish speakers is difficult enough in person,” said Chris Eftychiou, spokesperson for the Long Beach Unified School District. “Unlike many other districts, the vast majority of LBUSD double immersion students are not native speakers of Spanish or English. Learning content (math, science, and history) in Spanish through independent study is not a realistic expectation.

Los Angeles Unified spokeswoman Shannon Haber said the district does not offer bilingual immersion programs at its long-term independent study school, City of Angels, but does offer support for students to develop their language through online programs such as Rosetta Stone.

“We believe that double immersion programs have the most impact through in-person instruction,” Haber said.

Yuen and Inda both recognized that virtual language teaching is a challenge as children have to interact both with their peers and with teachers in order to learn a new language. However, they said the previous year of distance learning seemed to have given students and teachers the experience and practice to make it work.

“The biggest surprise is that the students and teachers are doing really well with this,” Yuen said.

Inda said she works hard to give her students the opportunity to speak and interact with each other, and she gives them lessons that require them to speak in full sentences in their new language.

“I think kids are resilient and can do just about anything. They’ve proven it over the past two years, ”said Inda. “I have never had the experience of a child saying, ‘I can’t do this’. “

Montebello Unified also offers extra-curricular tutoring in Spanish, paying additional teachers to work after school to provide additional language support.

The decision of other districts not to offer bilingual independent study programs is frustrating for parents like the United Father of Los Angeles, Heinar Campos. He has two children, one in kindergarten and one in fourth. The family chose an independent study because of concerns about the coronavirus, as their children are still too young to be vaccinated.

“I was first told: ‘Yeah, your kid is going to have a bilingual teacher, no problem.’ I kept pushing and asking and asking. I got, “Yeah, yeah, yeah” or “Email that person.” “Finally, City of Angels administrators told me that double immersion courses were not going to be offered at all,” Campos said.

In an independent study, Campos’ fourth-year son felt like he was not learning anything.

“He said to me, ‘Grandpa, we are reviewing the homework, and I have to teach the other kids to use the equipment because the teacher has no idea,'” about Chromebooks and of the other apps that students use to complete their homework online, Campos mentioned.

Additionally, Campos began to notice that his son was not speaking Spanish words as well as before. Campos wants his two children to be fluently bilingual, both to communicate with the family in El Salvador and with others around the world. So he decided to re-enroll his son in school in person, despite his concerns about the virus.

“Even before he went to school, we found him dancing in the living room, like ‘I’m going back to school!’,” Campos said. Now he comes home and talks about everything he learns. “He was reading a story in Spanish about this horse, and he was summarizing it. I see the difference.

Campos believes the district could offer double immersion programs online by moving some bilingual teachers into the independent study program, especially because some students who were previously in double immersion programs have chosen independent studies.

“If they knew they were going to transfer the children online, it made sense that they would also need bilingual teachers, since we have bilingual classes. They could do it if they wanted to, ”Campos said.

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