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Demand For Dual-Language Programs In D.C. Public Schools Skyrockets

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Students at Yu Ying Public Charter School.
WAMU/Kavitha Cardoza
Students at Yu Ying Public Charter School.

Most students in the U.S. learn a foreign language at some point in their academic careers, but in several D.C. public schools, learning a foreign language is more than just another elective. In fact, there are long waiting lists at schools that fully immerse students in two different languages.

Welcome to the Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School in Northeast D.C. The school offers a dual-language immersion program, meaning students learn in Chinese for half of their time spent in class. Yu Ying’s approximately 500 students start learning Chinese when they’re in pre-K.

“It’s fun to learn Chinese and that’s one of the things Barack Obama regrets,” says fifth-grader Aidan Elliott. “It’s from a book I read. He said he regrets not learning a language and playing an instrument.”

Yu Ying isn't the only dual-language school in the area. D.C. has 13 dual-language public schools that offer programs in Spanish, French and Hebrew, among other languages.

Demand on the rise throughout D.C.

Demand for these language programs is on the rise as research shows students who study more than one language do better academically, particularly African-American children and those who aren’t fluent in English.

“Last year we had about 1,100 applicants for 20 spots,” says Marquita Alexander, Yu Ying’s Head of School.

Ten years ago, D.C.’s traditional public schools had one immersion school with 450 children. Now it has eight schools with more than 3,000 students. There are plans to expand in the coming years because of long waiting lists.

Despite this expansion, dual-language programs have been criticized for the fact that none are located east of the Anacostia River.

“The elementary programs we have are clustered in areas, which have traditionally had students who didn’t speak English,” says Katarina Britto, head of bilingual education for D.C. Public Schools.

But given the success of dual-language programs, Britto is confident that programs will develop at more schools.

This class uses teaches students how to communicate emotion in Chinese. (Kavitha Cardoza/WAMU)

The benefits of being bilingual

Students who graduate from these dual-language programs enjoy many benefits. Employers are increasingly looking for language skills, says Lynn Fulton-Archer with the Delaware Department of Education.

In 2010, an international company was thinking of expanding its presence in Delaware, but after months of research, it decided not to because “the average potential employee in Delaware speaks one language,” says Fulton-Archer.

Delaware has since created several dual-language immersion programs similar to D.C.’s.

Other benefits include students’ increased familiarity with other cultures and understanding of social norms.

But increased cultural awareness does come at a cost. According to Britto, it doesn’t cost more to hire teachers, but additional costs, including buying textbooks in foreign languages, add up. Teachers from other cultures also need to learn the American system of education through special programs, Alexander says.

Becoming bilingual also requires a large investment in time. It takes five to seven years for children to become fluent in a language, so parents need to enroll their children in a program for the long haul.

These reports are part of American Graduate — Let's Make It Happen! — a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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