Time to consolidate Berkeley’s dual immersion programs

One of the crown jewels of Berkeley’s public school system is the District’s Two-Way Immersion (TWI) program, also called “dual immersion,” which was developed primarily to increase the academic achievement of English Learners.

The basic idea is that first teaching English Learners in their native language promotes long-term academic achievement and confidence, as well as English proficiency. In Berkeley, it was implemented in the late 1990s as a way to support native Spanish speakers’ academic achievement, boost their test scores, increase their graduation rates, and teach them English. Because the program requires both native Spanish speakers and native English speakers, it also provides wonderful (and popular) second language enrichment for native English speakers.

The program is currently consolidated at the middle school level, at Longfellow Middle School.  However, at the elementary school level, unlike in many other districts with successful TWI programs, the program is spread out over three schools: Cragmont, Rosa Parks, and LeConte. On June 6, the School Board will vote on Superintendent Bill Huyett’s recommendation to consolidate the TWI programs at LeConte beginning with the incoming kindergarten class of 2013-2014.  We urge the members of the Board to adopt the Superintendent’s recommendation.

When implemented with support and fidelity to the best practices models, TWI promotes bilingualism, bi-literacy, and bi-culturalism for native Spanish and English students alike. There is a wealth of national research establishing both that TWI is a highly effective way to increase the achievement of English Learners, and that bilingualism is beneficial to all.

The TWI program in Berkeley has been a success, but the fact that it is dispersed across three schools has stifled its potential. With only one strand at each school, teachers cannot collaborate across grade levels, 3-4-5 combination classes in the upper grades are inevitable, enrichment classes in English dilute the amount of Spanish-language instruction, and there is no central coordinator (such as a principal) who can educate parents about the benefits of the program and advocate for it at the District level. These less-than-ideal circumstances have led to a decline in enrollment among native Spanish speakers, precipitating a corresponding decline in the number of new TWI kindergarten classes in the District — from five in 2009-2010 to three in 2010-2011.

A consolidated TWI school would be able to provide the best that TWI has to offer both English Learners and native English speakers. Consolidation would, by definition, solve many of the most pressing problems with the current implementation of TWI.

Teachers would not be spread out across the District, and would be able to collaborate in the creation of coherent curricular development and pedagogic strategies with other teachers at their grade level.

A consolidated school would enjoy economies of scale with respect to almost every aspect of the program that is currently lacking: coordinated parental education and outreach, and acquisition of Spanish-language materials, just to name a few examples.

The staff at a consolidated school would be bilingual, including the teachers who teach enrichment programs. It would also be significantly easier to consolidate resources for native Spanish speakers who need support and extra tutoring. And the principal would be the de facto coordinator the program has been lacking for years.

Finally, we believe a consolidated TWI school would empower the Latino community in Berkeley, providing a multi-cultural, bilingual, and bi-literate hub for academic achievement in the District – where monolingual Spanish speaking parents experience true ownership and belonging at the school.  LeConte already has a strong and vibrant Latino community, and is a natural home for a consolidated TWI program.

The implementation will be gradual, and the District has no plans to force any students to switch schools mid-stream. That said, consolidation will not come without costs. Although the demographics of the TWI and non-TWI strands at Rosa Parks and Cragmont are roughly similar to each other (especially at Rosa Parks), the loss of TWI at these schools will represent a significant change to their culture and identity.

At the end of the day, however, the TWI program in Berkeley exists to reduce the achievement gap for English Learners. The status quo is not sustainable. Saving (and in doing so, strengthening) the program is far preferable to letting it wither away. Indeed, the program should be expanded – so that it can benefit even more students, English Learners and native English speakers alike.  We are convinced this will only happen at a consolidated school.

The authors are members of Amigos de Inmersión Dual de Berkeley (Friends of Berkeley TWI).

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Update, 05.25.12: From BUSD: Superintendent Huyett invites the community to join him at two community forums outlining the possible Two Way Immersion (TWI) consolidation at one instead of three elementary schools.  Tuesday, May 29 at LeConte Elementary School 6:00 – 7:30 p.m. 2241 Russell Street (West of Telegraph) Monday, June 4 at Rosa Parks Elementary School 6:00 – 7:30 p.m. 920 Allston Way (West of San Pablo). The meetings are intended to allow the community to provide input regarding the consolidation and the issues related to implementation, e.g., transportation, sibling preference, staffing, time line for implementation, and impact on all sites. All school sites are encouraged to participate in these forums. Childcare and Spanish interpretation will be provided.

Paz Meléndez-Canales is a parent at LeConte and the President of Leconte’s English Learner Advisory Council (ELAC). Ty Alper is a Rosa Parks parent and the Chair of the School Governance Council (SGC) at Rosa Parks. Vylma Ortiz is a Cragmont parent. All three are members of Amigos de Inmersión Dual de Berkeley (Friends of Berkeley TWI).