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Pandemic Creates Hurdles for Dual Language Education

Dual language has gained popularity nationwide, with a goal for students to speak, read and write both languages at the bilingual level, no matter their native tongue, but the pandemic is creating new challenges.

by Alia Malik, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution / December 9, 2020
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(TNS) — In a mostly bare room at Sweetwater Middle School northeast of Lilburn, half a dozen sixth-graders sat, spaced apart, in front of laptops one afternoon last month, while seven others Zoomed into the Spanish-language media literacy class from their homes.

In the classroom, Yairelis Aviles-Blaimayer interviewed fellow student  Jadan Jones  for a job at a nascent bilingual school newspaper. Jadan, 11, used his middle school identification card as proof of employment eligibility.

"If you get the job, I'll call you," said Yairelis, also 11, in Spanish. "If not, well, I won't call you. We'll send you an email."

Most of the class had been in dual language immersion, learning half their core subjects in Spanish and the other half in English, since kindergarten. Now they are in the first group of Gwinnett County, Ga., Public Schools dual language students to reach middle school — in a tumultuous year for all types of education, but especially the type that relies on conversation.

Dual language enrollment has grown tenfold in Gwinnett in the six years the district has offered the program. About 2,500 students are now in dual language classes in nine elementary schools and three middle schools, said  Jon Valentine , the district's director of dual language immersion. Most are learning Spanish, though one feeder pattern offers French and another has Korean.

Most of the dual language classes in Gwinnett teach Spanish or French to students who speak English at home, although the reverse is true in some of the dual language Spanish classes and in the Korean program, which enrolls native Korean speakers at Parsons Elementary near Suwanee. The students at Sweetwater Middle, and its feeder Bethesda Elementary, are in the district's only dual language program that mixes native Spanish and English speakers.

The goal is for students to speak, read and write both languages at the bilingual level, no matter their native tongue.

Dual language has gained popularity nationwide, due in large part to demand from families who want their children to speak multiple languages in an increasingly global economy. Children who don't speak English at home sign up to overcome the language barrier while improving their native language skills. And some studies show that learning two languages simultaneously improves problem-solving skills, creativity and overall academic performance.

In the DeKalb County School District, more than 900 students are in German, Spanish or French dual language programs in eight schools, World Language Coordinator  Rhonda Wells  said in an email. The school district remains fully virtual, but dual language students are receiving real-time instruction and completing homework in both languages, Wells said.

Atlanta Public Schools, which has also stayed fully virtual, has almost 1,300 students in Spanish dual language programs in seven schools, said  Seth Coleman , a district spokesman, in an email.

"Our teachers and families are closer than ever before," Coleman said. "As you can imagine, via Zoom sessions, we are in the house frequently interacting and connecting to our parents. This provides us with the opportunity to spark a unified focus by the adults on education, literacy, and language learning."

'Plugging forward'

Gwinnett has not tested dual language students for proficiency since the pandemic because the tests aren't designed to be taken at home. So dual language teachers received training to evaluate students based on the standards the tests use, said Virin Vedder, coordinator of dual language immersion in Gwinnett.

Gwinnett is one of the few metro Atlanta districts conducting in-person classes, although slightly more than half of students have opted to learn virtually instead. Improving oral language skills with small class sizes and many students on Zoom has been challenging in the pandemic, Vedder said. On the plus side, Valentine said, teachers have been able to focus on reading and writing.

"I wish we were pushing forward at 100 miles per hour," Valentine said. "We're probably plugging forward at 30 to 50, but we're still moving forward."

Almost 40,000 students in Gwinnett County Public Schools, nearly a quarter of the student population, are learning English as a second language. Spanish is the most common home language apart from English, followed by Vietnamese and Korean in that order, Valentine said. The school district opened Spanish dual language programs in every high school cluster along Gwinnett's southwestern edge, where many Spanish-speaking families live.

"The goal is equity of access," Valentine said. "We want to make sure we're providing this opportunity for our native speakers, heritage speakers and their families."

Gwinnett decided middle school dual language students would have all their core classes in English, but they'd be required to sign up for at least one year-round advanced literacy class in the second language as an elective. On top of that, many at Sweetwater Middle have chosen two semester-long advanced Spanish classes, including the media literacy course Jadan and Yairelis were in.

Jadan's mother is Colombian and the family speaks Spanish and English at home. Yairelis speaks only Spanish at home with her siblings and Venezuelan adoptive mother. Both sixth-graders said it was harder to take Spanish from home for the two weeks before they were allowed into Sweetwater.

Yairelis quickly became uncomfortable at her desk, but when she tried moving to her bed, she fell asleep. Technical issues distracted everyone: one student's microphone making unbearable scratching noises or another person's bad connection.

"When a teacher or someone cuts out or they're freezing, it's harder to hear the expressions they're trying to say," Jadan said.

In school, they said, social distancing complicated the small-group conversations integral to many dual language classes.

"Usually we're able to interact and move around," Jadan said. "Now we just stay at our desks."

But they listed the benefits of continuing in dual language: more job opportunities and the ability to understand people all over the world.

At the start of the school year, when classes were virtual, Yairelis had a hard time understanding the English and her grades dropped, said her mother,  Maria Isabel Pinto . They decided it was best for her to go in person.

Pinto thinks many Hispanic parents make the mistake of allowing their children to forget Spanish. "It's very important because it's an international language," Pinto said in Spanish.

Jadan's mother,  Ana Maria Granda , said he's been doing well so far. Granda said she wanted to raise bilingual children who are connected to their cultural background and can speak to her side of the family.

Virtual language learning has been working out fine for some families, including that of  Kennedi Kelly , who joined the media literacy class on Zoom. Kennedi's parents liked dual language so much they drove her to a program far from her neighborhood school. Now Kennedi, who has asthma, does it all from home — no more 20-minute car rides through traffic.

"She's been doing this for six years, so she's fine with the dual language online," said her father, Vashoun Kelly. "I wouldn't recommend if this was somebody's first time doing it."

The media literacy teacher,  Karin Bomar , had to create lessons that work for in-person and virtual learners simultaneously, a more complicated process than in years past. Although students are supposed to be talking to each other in Spanish on Zoom, sometimes they only type into the chat. Still, Bomar said everyone's trying their best.

"The kids progress very fast," said Bomar, whose first language is French. "It develops their thinking. ...I'm also from a multicultural family. My dad is American, my mom is Belgian and I grew up in Belgium, and now I'm married to a Kenyan, so for me, these mixes of languages are normal. They're very natural. They only open your mind."

(c)2020 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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