Holding Space for Latino Students in Spanish Dual Language Immersion Programs

Starting a Spanish dual language immersion program is no easy feat, but it can be especially difficult when the program is started in an already existent traditional English-only school. Before starting an immersion program at a school site that has an already established culture, it is imperative that school and district leaders prepare all stakeholders for the transition to becoming a Spanish bilingual school, which must and should include holding space for Latino students and their families, along with the Latino community. Holding space, in this article, is defined as upholding the essence of the Latino community by continuously addressing, with compassion and empathy, the academic, social, and emotional needs of Latino students. Holding space for Latino students also includes teaching the accurate Chicano, Latino, and Hispanic histories (including indigenous, Asian, and African), as well as other occurrences and facts that have been historically omitted from the curricula in the schools.

Spanish immersion programs are started by districts and schools for several reasons including:

  1. closing the achievement gap between Latino students and their higher achieving counterparts
  2. wanting to start a dual language program in a community with a Spanish-speaking Latino population to develop multilingualism in all students, regardless of background
  3. a desire to increase a district’s student population due to low enrollment

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When an immersion program is established and the mission and vision of the program are written, the inclusion of cultural literacy is an integral part of the success of the language program. School leaders and teachers, including all school staff, must be trained on cultural pedagogical practices and culturally-responsive pedagogy in order to ensure that the culture/s and the histories of the students are represented, learned about, and honored as a school community. This especially includes the Latino/Hispanic culture/s, since the school’s languages of instruction are Spanish and English.

Holding space for Latino students includes doing everything possible to understand the community’s struggles, culture/s, traditions, grief, and history. It is knowing that Latinos in the United States have historically suffered marginalization, deportations, racism & classism, violence, mass incarcerations, police brutality, amongst many other issues that are unique to this community. It is important for school leaders and teachers to have an authentic understanding of the issues that impact the Latino community and to have liaisons who will adequately communicate those needs to school and district leaders.

Leading and establishing a Spanish immersion language program should always be done through a social justice lens and should reflect the accurate histories of the struggles, triumphs, and the injustices that have affected the Latino, Hispanic, and Chicano community/ies for hundreds of years, especially in the educational systems of the United States.

Continue reading to find out more of Angela’s insights….

But California has hated no newcomer group more than Mexicans, which is funny, because the state had been Mexico. From the Greaser Act to state-sponsored deportation efforts during the 1930s and 1950s and school segregation to a bevy of voter-supported propositions that declared English the state’s official language (Proposition 63 in 1986), threatened to criminalize anyone who assisted undocumented immigrants (Proposition 187 in 1994), ended affirmative action (Proposition 209 two years later) and stopped bilingual education (1998’s Proposition 187), California has treated Mexicans as its favorite political piñata (Arellano, 2018).

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It is important that district and school leaders use this information to train principals, teachers, parents, and school staff on how to collaborate with the Latino community to help ensure the academic, social, and emotional success of Latino children. In Spanish dual language immersion programs, school districts will attempt to recruit 50% English-speaking students from diverse cultural backgrounds and 50% Spanish-speaking, usually Latino or Hispanic, students. Most schools that start Spanish dual language immersion programs have a significant number of Latino students, many of whom live in high poverty. Racism, classism, poverty, immigration & migrant status, ELL status & language, gang violence, and other issues highly impact the Latino community, especially the children in these communities.

Hispanics are over represented among the poor, making up 28.1% of the more than 45 million poor Americans and 37% of the 14.5 million children in poverty. Overall 17% of all Americans are Hispanic (Krogstad, 2014).

Schools that have Latino students must actively and intentionally address these issues when starting Spanish dual language programs to ensure that these students are not forgotten, disregarded, or overlooked. In many Spanish immersion programs, the upper-class, English-dominant children, push-out the English Language Learner Latino students due to gentrification and district lottery systems, and the immersion program then becomes one-way immersion rather than two-way immersion. Latino students in Spanish dual language programs often experience racism and discrimination, or a feeling of exclusion or “otherness,” because it is the upper-class families who use their privilege and money to make an impact on school systems and procedures. English-dominant children then become the real benefactors of these programs, rather than the children that these programs were initially meant to serve; Spanish-speaking, English Language Learner students.

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In other words, if integrated, two-way dual-immersion programs make multilingualism more appealing to English-speaking families, they can also shift these programs’ focus away from educational equity for English learners. Left unchecked, demand from privileged, English-dominant families can push ELs and their families out of multilingual schools and convert two-way dual-immersion programs into one-way programs that exclusively serve English-speaking children. In some places, this ultimately results in a system in which English-dominant students get access to Spanish-English dual-immersion programs, while native Spanish-speaking students are consigned to English-only programs (Williams, 2017).

Continue reading to find out more of Angela’s insights….

The teaching and promoting of cultural practices in dual programs should be placed at the forefront of dual language immersion essential practices and of the professional development of teachers. This promotion of culture (especially the culture/s of the Spanish-speaking countries), and the honoring of the Spanish language, allows Latino students to feel recognized, validated, valued, and recognized in high regard by the school system. It also gives all other students the permission to be proud of their own cultures and backgrounds. For example, African-American students in dual language programs should also have the opportunity to have their culture/s and histories taught and recognized.

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How this is done is up to the school and the teachers, as well as the African-American community at the school. Honoring and teaching the cultures and histories of all students holds space for all students, but especially those who are most vulnerable; students of color and Native students who have been historically marginalized in our educational systems.

Dual immersion teachers should be continuously collaborating and learning how to teach and develop cultural programs at every grade level. School leaders also play a crucial role in allocating funds for cultural practices, including outsourcing cultural dances, songs, and performances through school assemblies. Dual immersion school leaders also ensure that teachers receive professional development on the integration of culturally responsive pedagogy into the curricula. It is important that teachers are given the funds to purchase culturally-relevant literature in all grades and that teachers honor all the cultures represented in their classrooms. This type of pedagogy requires funding as well as knowledge of how to teach cultural practices. Language and culture are inextricably connected, and one cannot be taught without the other.

Dual language immersion teachers must always view their teaching through a cultural lens and cultural practices must be integrated daily into the curricula. It is through a school-wide focus on cultural pedagogical practices that Spanish dual language immersion programs can hold space for Latino students, which in turn holds space for all students, because when the culture/s and histories of all of students are taught, honored, and valued, students feel accepted, free, and at peace in their school environment.

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Angela Palmieri
Author: Angela Palmieri

Angela Palmieri is the founding teacher of a Spanish dual language immersion program in Glendale, California. She currently teaches sixth grade language immersion and has been an educator for eighteen years. She traveled to New Zealand on the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching in 2016 to research and document the cultural practices taught in Maōri-medium schools. Angela holds a Master’s degree in Educational Administration from the Principal Leadership Institute at UCLA, a Master’s degree in Reading and Language Education, as well as a Bachelor’s degree in Urban Learning Education from CSULA. Ms. Palmieri is currently a doctoral student in the Educational Leadership Program at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Ms. Palmieri was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela, to Italian immigrant parents, and speaks Spanish and Italian fluently. She is a social justice-driven advocate for bilingual and indigenous language education and is an avid traveler. Angela travelled to China and Mongolia on a Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad grant in June and July of 2018.

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