Educators opt for dual-language programs to close achievement gaps

Education programs in which students are taught simultaneously in two languages are popping up in East Idaho in efforts to close the achievement gap between the state’s white children and their Latino peers.

These dual-language immersion programs give Spanish-speaking students a chance to receive up to half of their instruction in their native language — something that could foster deeper learning.

But the programs require additional money and specialized staff. And because most are new to Idaho, their effectiveness is still largely undetermined — or in some cases, ineffective. For example, in the Blaine County School District, achievement gaps are wider than the state average, though it has supported a dual-immersion program for 15 years.

Meanwhile, more programs are popping up in East Idaho from Jefferson County to Teton, where educators are hoping their investments will pay off.

“We feel that these programs are an important asset for both Hispanics and non-Hispanics,” said Michelle Southwick, Jefferson County’s director of elementary education.

Hispanics are Idaho’s largest minority and account for about 13 percent of the population. About 27 percent of them either don’t speak English or speak it as a second language, including American Falls’ migrant-Hispanic senior Brenda Gonzalez.

“Learning the language is the hardest part about coming to school,” she said. “I come to class, but I don’t feel like I get anything out of it most the time.”

The language barrier in schools also affects Spanish-speaking parents, who are generally less involved in their children’s education — not because they don’t want to be, but because the language and cultural barriers make it more difficult.

“For many of our Hispanic students, Spanish is still the language used at home,” said Blackfoot Hispanic liaison Christina Alvarez. “Students often don’t build on both languages equally in those cases.”

Academic results

Hispanic enrollment in Idaho’s public schools has doubled in the last 23 years from about 6,000 to 12,000. Those additional students have not been able to keep up academically, trailing the rest of Idaho’s students by double-digit margins in many indicators. They also graduate and go on to college at lower rates than non-Hispanics.

The achievement gap is evident at all levels.

  • In elementary schools, students take the Idaho Reading Indicator to gauge literacy levels. Last year, 61 percent of Idaho’s Hispanics achieved the test’s highest benchmark score, compared to 76 percent of non-Hispanics. Nearly 20 percent of Hispanics scored in the lowest category, compared to 11 percent of non-Hispanics.
  • At the high school level, only 14 percent of the state’s Hispanic sophomores achieved scores of “advanced” or “proficient” on the 2014-15 Idaho Standards Achievement Test or ISAT — compared to over 27 percent of non-Hispanics.

  • Postsecondary enrollment is also lower among Hispanics. Although college enrollment among the demographic has tripled since 2004, they still trail non-Hispanics by about 6 percentage points, according to data from the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs and State Board of Education.

The effects of dual-language programs

Administrators in districts across the state are implementing a variety of services to reduce the achievement gap. Dual-language programs are becoming more popular, but they can be expensive and require teachers with specialized skills.

The Jefferson School District, nestled 20 miles north of Idaho Falls in an agriculture economy, serves 162 Hispanic students, or about 12 percent of the student population.

Jefferson recently invested in dual immersion programs in its five elementary schools, including four aimed specifically at helping native Spanish speakers. (The district’s other immersion program focuses on Chinese.)

The programs were launched initially with patron donations, but now the district funds them at a cost of $13,000 annually.

“We’ve just tried to be as proactive as we can about staffing people who speak both languages,” said Southwick. “So if we do that, it doesn’t cost more to pay the people we need.”

Jefferson County’s program has attracted the attention of administrators in Jerome, Twin Falls, Preston, Teton and Caldwell. The Teton School District recently announced its plans to start a dual-immersion program.

But it’s too early to tell how dual immersion in Jefferson County is affecting the district’s IRI indicators, Southwick said, since most of the programs are still in infancy. In 2015-16, only 4.7 percent of the district’s Hispanics achieved scores of advanced on the ISAT, compared to 22.1 percent of white students.

Long-running, dual-immersion programs in Blaine County have not closed the achievement gap, but the district continues to support the investment. Blaine County opened a magnet school in 2013 that now houses the 15-year-old program. As a result, hundreds of students — half native Spanish speakers — have received instruction in English and Spanish. Business manager Bryan Fletcher says the program comes with an annual price tag of roughly $2.4 million.

Blaine County officials credit their dual-immersion program for hoisting the district’s overall standardized test scores, though the achievement gap has not closed. The district’s ISAT scores surpass state averages but the Hispanic students still trail in performance to their white peers. That gap, in most grade levels, is five percentage points larger than the state average.

Blaine County assessment coordinator Marcia Grabow said the gap exits, in part, because “our white students just tend to do so well here.”

District spokesman Heather Crocker said the cost is incurred regardless of whether it’s for Dual Immersion or not

“There are not additional costs for our dual immersion,” said Crocker.  “It is staffed similarly to the rest of our schools and programs.”

Plus, a program’s effectiveness is often best measured by other indicators, Grabow said, including giving Hispanics greater self-confidence as they assume leadership roles.

“As many of the other kids struggle to learn Spanish, we see Hispanics stepping up to help them out,” she said. “As a result, all of our dual-immersion students seem to hold their heads just a little higher later on.”