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The Intrusion of White Families Into Bilingual Schools

December 28, 2017
Conor Williams
The Atlantic

Stephanie Lugardo’s second-grade classroom at Academia Antonia Alonso in Wilmington, Delaware, is bubbling. Students chatter with one another as they work, smiling and joking and wiggling in and out of their chairs. Sure—it’s an elementary-school classroom. It’s expected to exude the earnest joy of children growing into themselves. But this one is different. Smiles break out on an array of faces, and the chatter spills out in English and Spanish.

This is an incarnation of a new American pluralism, one of the latest iterations of Walt Whitman’s “teeming nation of nations” flowering in “their curiosity and welcome of novelty.” Downstairs, in a kindergarten class, an African American student exclaims to her friend, “I know how to say that in Spanish!”

José Aviles, the head of Academia Antonia Alonso, describes the school as a sort of multicultural nirvana. “We tell parents, ‘Your kid is going to be surrounded by Latino kids, white kids, African American kids—we offer everyone the same education, the same quality, the same love,’” he told me.

Academia Antonia Alonso, which opened as a public charter school in 2014, was designed to meet the needs of a linguistically diverse population. School leaders took full advantage of the flexibility allowed to charters to launch what’s known as a “dual-immersion” program: Children learn in both English and Spanish and, ideally, become fully bilingual in the process. The students switch languages each school day—if a class runs in English on Tuesday, it switches to Spanish on Wednesday. (With some exceptions: For example, all the school’s capoeira classes are usually in Spanish—with a smattering of Portuguese.) The program also balances the linguistic makeup of each class of students through its enrollment process. About a third of the school’s children are formally recognized as English learners (ELs), students who are still developing basic proficiency in that language. Nearly two-thirds of the school’s students are Latino, while around half of those enrolled are native Spanish speakers; the other half are native English speakers.

Dual-immersion classrooms aren’t just joyful to watch. They’re also ever more important to understand as their approach grows in popularity across the country. But there are some indications that multilingual schools’ increasing appeal is inadvertently undermining the original purpose for the model.