(Graphic by Wilson Liévano. Original photo by Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

The inequity roadblock to California's bilingual plans

Andrea Figueroa Briseño

Andrea Figueroa Briseño

Report for America corps member
May 15, 2023

SAN DIEGO — San Diego Unified has a lot of work to do to help meet the state’s goal of making the majority of California students bilingual.

State officials want half of California’s K-12 students to be working toward proficiency in at least two languages by 2030, and for every three out of four graduates to be considered bilingual by 2040.

But education experts say current investments for the initiative known as Global California 2030 aren’t enough to meet the goal’s timeline and that the shortage of resources, including dual-language programs and bilingual teachers, present an equity issue.

At San Diego Unified last year, fewer than 530 of its roughly 7,500 graduates — 7% — earned a Seal of Biliteracy, a marking added to a high school diploma for attaining proficiency in one or more languages in addition to English. 

That’s compared to the 57,000 students, or 13% of all graduates statewide, who earned the seal — showing that even as it stands by its progress, California is far behind meeting its bilingual goals. Officials had projected that number to be as many as 100,000 annually by now.   

English learners are no exception — and experts say they may be getting left behind. 

Of the more than 1 million English learners in state schools, less than a tenth — or 97,000 — were enrolled in a dual-language program during the 2020-21 school year, the most recent year for which federal data is publicly available. Such programs are used by the state to help meet its Global California goals.

Teacher Linda Guerra-Adame instructs her bilingual class at Rosa Parks Elementary School in City Heights, May 4, 2023. (Photo by Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

And while San Diego Unified enrolls more English learners in dual-language programs than the state, Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest school district, has seen enrollment drops among these students.

Conor Williams, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, an independent think tank that conducts research and advocates for policy changes, said California should prioritize English learners for dual-language programs, a scarce state resource.

“You need an equity mindset where the kids who will benefit most need to be the ones who get priority,” Williams said.

The goal of Global California 2030, launched in 2018, is to equip students with language skills that allow them to better engage and appreciate cultures while also increasing their job competitiveness, according to a report.

Under the initiative, state officials want to increase dual-language programs, from 407 in 2017 to 1,600 by 2030. As of 2023, the state has 1,343 multilingual programs, which include dual-language immersion.

How many students are enrolled in those programs, however, is unclear. The California Department of Education said that number for the most recent school year was unavailable.

inewsource also requested more detailed enrollment and demographic records but the department declined to release them, saying the information was personally identifiable information not subject to public disclosure.

But Alesha Moreno-Ramirez, the department’s director of multilingual support division, told inewsource she’s encouraged by the state’s progress, prefacing that the initiative is an aspiration and shows the state’s dedication to fairness.

“I think that really speaks to the commitment to equity and the prioritization of ensuring that we are attentive to the needs of all of our students,” she said.

Speaking more than one language can bring many benefits, including awareness of one’s own thought process and how language is used, said Anya Hurwitz, executive director at Sobrato Early Academic Language. The organization provides school districts professional development, curriculum support and technical assistance.  

“It opens parts of the brain that a monolingual child will not have access to,” Hurwitz said.

A “Pared de Palabras”, or wall of words, is used as an instructional tool in a bilingual classroom at Rosa Parks Elementary School in City Heights (Photo by Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Experts: Initiative needs equity lens

Research shows English learners do better in dual-language programs. When their native language isn’t incorporated into the curriculum, experts say, they can face serious consequences: losing their native tongue, hurting their socio-emotional well-being and connection to their family and community, for example, or even falling into what’s known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

“Just having that dual-language program in the school transforms the culture of that school because English isn’t the only language being valued,” Hurwitz said.

Half of California’s 57,000 high school graduates who received a biliteracy seal last year are current and former English learners. Just 2,300 were current English learners, making up about 4% of the seal-earning students.

San Diego Unified’s numbers are similar: Current English learners made up 30 of the 528 graduates — close to 6% — who earned the seal.

The district did not respond to inewsource’s multiple requests for comment on its progress on bilingual students.

At Rosa Parks Elementary in the City Heights area, students are offered an English-only education or a one-way program, which caters to Latino and English learner students.

Principal Veronika Lopez-Mendez is shown at Rosa Parks Elementary School in City Heights, May 4, 2023. (Photo by Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Principal Veronika Lopez-Mendez said 90% of the school’s incoming kindergarten class speak a language other than English at home. 

Not only do standardized tests show the school’s students in the bilingual track are outperforming children in English-only education, Lopez-Mendez said, but they also do better better when it comes to reclassification rates, meaning they’re later considered fluent in English more often.

“It’s not by a ton,” she said. “It’s about 10%, but there’s still a noticeable difference.”

But for English learners and their families, being part of a bilingual program means more than just higher academic outcomes. 

For Isabella Estrada Gonzalez, a fourth grader at Rosa Parks Elementary, it means being a translator for her family and community: Her father speaks mostly Spanish and her eldest brother, who briefly attended a bilingual program himself, at times struggles to communicate in Spanish.

Being able to help others is one of her favorite parts about attending a dual-language program, Isabella said.

Ana Gonzalez and her daughter Isabella Estrada Gonzalez are shown at Rosa Parks Elementary School in City Heights, May 10, 2023. Isabella is enrolled in the school’s dual-language program. (Photo by Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Her mother, Ana Gonzalez, said the program has boosted Isabella’s confidence and keeps her child tied to her roots through her native language.

“She knows that it’s a strong tool that she has (and) that in the future will benefit her even for a job,” Gonzalez said in Spanish.

The Century Foundation and The Children’s Equity Project, a multi-university initiative that conducts research, develops interventions and works with states to provide equitable learning experiences for children, has researched the demographics of dual-language programs across parts of the U.S. Williams himself noticed a trend of fewer English learners in such programs at his kids’ school in Washington, D.C. 

That’s happening at Los Angeles Unified, too. Of the district’s roughly 147 dual-language programs, 133 saw a decrease in English learners from 2015 to 2020. Within that same timeframe, 108 of its dual-language programs saw an increase in their number of white students. 

White students make up about 5% — or 26,000 — of the district’s total student enrollment, state data shows.

The impact of gentrification in parts of the Los Angeles area has been happening for some time, Williams said, so it’s expected that some programs would see a drop in their English-learner population — but “the fact you’re seeing it in almost all of (the programs) though is maybe a little bit more concerning.”

Teacher Marianna Chanfreau works with a pair of students in her English language kindergarten classroom at Rosa Parks Elementary School in City Heights. (Photo by Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

More investments needed

While education experts agree dual-language programs benefit all students, they say current investments don’t match the ambitious goals of Global California 2030 and the timeline may be unrealistic.

In addition to not having enough teachers to meet demand for any expansion, it costs an estimated $300,000 to start a new dual-language program and requires a multi-year commitment from schools upon establishing one.

Efforts like Assembly Bill 2514 introduced in 2018 and later Senate Bill 952 in 2022, would have provided funding to build up dual-language programs in the state. Both ultimately fizzled out.

More recently, California offered $10 million in grants to expand these programs, but only 27 of the 160 districts and charter schools that applied received the funding.

Williams said the state should “dramatically” invest in growing its bilingual teacher workforce, increase grant funding and provide more money to schools with English learners to increase access to dual-language programs.

For the state to take its goals seriously, he said, officials need to do away with “wishful” language that allows for little to no accountability, and require that half of all dual-language program seats are reserved for English learners.

“You’re gonna have to disproportionately put money towards English learners’ access (and) disproportionately, frankly, deprioritize English-dominant kids until you’ve rectified the imbalance that you built for 18 years,” Williams said.

This story is part of “More than Words,” a Report for America initiative that brought together newsrooms covering Latino communities in eight states to examine the impact of language barriers on the social, economic, and educational advancement of Latinos and the local efforts to close this gap.

This project is made possible by