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HomeDual LanguageEnsuring African American Students’ Access to Multilingual Learning

Ensuring African American Students’ Access to Multilingual Learning

Conor P. Williams analyzes the barriers to achieving linguistic, racial, and ethnic diversity in dual language immersion schools


The growing research base on dual-language immersion’s benefits for English learners is pushing many policymakers to prioritize linguistic diversity in multilingual schools. What does this mean for racial diversity? And where do African American students fit in?

Like many dual language immersion (DLI) schools, Indianapolis’s Global Preparatory Academy at Riverside 44 (GPA) is audibly, astonishingly diverse.1 Like many other Spanish–English DLI campuses around the country, its annual Celebration of Cultures features flags, outfits, and music from across Latin America—and the broader world.2 Students of all backgrounds sparkle through traditional and modern songs in Spanish and perform dances with roots in Mexican, Caribbean, and/or South American countries.

But it also includes students dancing to the famous rhythm guitar funk beat thudding along behind the Sugar Hill Gang’s pathbreaking “Rapper’s Delight,” as part of the school’s celebration of hip-hop’s 50th anniversary. Next, groups dance to Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It,” Kris Kross’s “Jump,” and more. During an interlude tracking the music’s history, a GPA student explains, “Hip-hop wasn’t just a sense of fashion… it was art.”

This is standard at GPA, where multiracial multiculturalism is central to the DLI program’s multilingualism. While many DLI schools are designed to attract a linguistically diverse student population— and to advance linguistic integration—GPA intentionally includes race, ethnicity, and culture in its model’s design. “We have a very nice Black History Month program,” says Willard Gupton, Sr., the school’s dean of students. “[But] we’re wanting to expand that to where it’s year round, because ours is such a rich history that it can’t be confined to a month.”

When equitable DLI access is discussed at all, it is almost always discussed in terms of linguistic diversity—partly because of the unique benefits that English learners (ELs) appear to gain from DLI instruction. Most studies find that DLI programs are uniquely effective at supporting ELs’ academic success, English acquisition, and emerging bilingual abilities.3 But linguistic diversity does not exist in a vacuum; access to multilingual programming intersects with other racial and socioeconomic power structures in the US.

In particular, African American students appear to be disproportionately excluded from these programs in many US communities.

Changing Demographics, Changing School
GPA launched as a “restart” school in Indianapolis’s predominantly African American Riverside neighborhood in 2016. This meant shuttering the existing campus and reopening it as a turnaround charter school within the school district’s “Innovation Network.”4 This presented GPA founder Mariama Shaheed with a unique situation: she had the flexibility of a charter school, some of the resource supports of a traditional district school, and a campus already full of current students.

Shaheed chose a multilingual model, in part because she wanted the school’s new mission to include the bridging of communities and cultures. The school launched a strand of linguistically integrated “two-way” DLI classrooms,5 with native speakers of Spanish and English enrolled together in bilingual classrooms. It also maintained an English-only track for families who preferred it.

Teachers say that the school’s model fosters a genuine multilingual and multicultural community. “We’re so diverse,” says GPA kindergarten teacher Alicia Khemir. “They’re getting used to it because this is what we’re introducing them to. The school is just building that bridge for them.”

That’s certainly how families say that they experience the school. “They support all families and don’t discriminate against anyone,” Wendy Barco, a mother of four GPA students, says in Spanish. “They teach in both languages and maintain our language and culture… I don’t have time to teach my kids to read and write [in Spanish] because I have to work!”

And yet, the school’s demographics are changing.6 Of the 421 students enrolled in 2016, nearly two-thirds were African American and one-quarter were Latino; around 11% of students were English learners (ELs), and 85% of students were economically disadvantaged. Today, in the 2023–24 school year, while the large majority of GPA’s students are still children of color, their specific demographics have shifted: 28% of students are African American and 60% identify as Latinos, 40% are ELs, and just above 70% of the student body are economically disadvantaged. In essence, the campus’s shares of African American students and Latino students have nearly flipped. In raw numbers, the school’s African American population has dropped by just over 70 students, while the Latino population has nearly quadrupled—and the school has grown to 700 students.

To a degree, this mirrors patterns in the broader region. Indianapolis Public Schools has lost nearly 8,000 students since 2016, an enrollment reduction of over 26%. This drop is almost entirely explained by 6,311 African American students leaving the district during this period; African Americans were nearly half of IPS enrollment in 2016 and are just 37% today. Indeed, while nearly all major student groups shrank from 2016 to 2023, Latino students grew slightly, increasing their enrollment share from 25% to nearly 37%.

Recruiting and Retaining African American Families
Shaheed and other school leaders worry that these demographic trends are undermining the school’s goal of making multilingual, multicultural instruction available to African American students in the Riverside area. While they have learned that many Latinx families, like Santiago’s, are enthusiastic about sending their children to a multilingual school, they are working on understanding what attracts others. “What is the value proposition of bilingual education for a Black family?” Shaheed says she asks herself—and her families.

In particular, GPA staff fret that, in the near term, the benefits of DLI programs may not always be sufficiently apparent to English-dominant African American families and Spanish-dominant Latinx families. For instance, most studies indicate that ELs are more likely to reach English proficiency if they enroll in DLI programs, but only if they remain enrolled at least through middle school. Furthermore, most research on language learning indicates that it takes English-dominant DLI students five to seven years to become bilingual in a second language. This longer time horizon can make DLI a tough sale for historically marginalized families, particularly in 2024. And indeed, some of the school’s short-term academic outcomes still reflect the damage of the pandemic.7

“Our kids were already disadvantaged before the pandemic,” says assistant principal Lidia Vidal. The challenge now, she explains, is to balance between acknowledging the real struggles children have faced in recent years and setting high expectations and pushing for academic recovery. As GPA’s students—a large majority of whom are children of color from low-income families—clamber back from the emergency, it can be difficult for families to trust patiently that DLI’s long-term benefits will actually arrive for their children.

To that end, GPA leaders are focusing on recruitment, family communication, and retention—and on fine-tuning their messaging to families. GPA principal Sharifa Blackwell hosts regular coffee meetings open to all families and is working with consultants to recruit more African American families from the surrounding area. School leaders are particularly hopeful that reforms to Indianapolis school enrollment rules—giving free transportation for potential GPA students living in a larger portion of the city—may make GPA more appealing to African American families who might not have otherwise been willing to make the trip.

Specifically, the school has concluded that some African American families are less interested in the DLI model’s bilingualism and more interested in students participating in a welcoming community where they feel that they belong. So school events—like the Celebration of Cultures—explicitly elevate African American students’ culture as a central part of GPA’s diversity, and as a valuable resource in its mission to prepare students for global leadership. “It’s important for me,” Principal Blackwell says, “that people feel heard and valued, [that we] create spaces where families feel they can be 100% transparent, spaces where they can express 100% of their full Blackness.”

GPA parent Keeanna Warren says that her family “very intentionally chose Global Prep… for my two Black sons” for both of these reasons. “We wanted bilingual education for our children because it’s a valuable skillset for them to have… we wanted our sons to know Spanish,” she explains.

“But also because it teaches empathy and understanding and shows them the value of diversity.”

African American Students’ DLI Access: Local and National Patterns
Demographic patterns like GPA’s present thorny questions for researchers and policymakers: Are African American families being structurally excluded from access to DLI? Or are they simply less likely than other groups to pursue DLI schools for their children? There has not been a sufficiently systemic analysis of African American families in US DLI programs to provide a firm answer.

However, in a 2023 report on equitable access to DLI programs, The Century Foundation (TCF) researchers analyzed 1,600 schools serving over 1.1 million students.8 While this sample only covers one-third to one-quarter of US DLI programs, it still offers a window into measuring different student groups’ access. The research found that, although African American students made up 15% of US K–12 enrollment in 2019–20,9 they made up just 11% of enrollment in the sample of DLI schools.10 Further, 944 of the 1,600 schools in TCF’s DLI database enrolled a lower share of African American students than their surrounding districts in the 2019–20 school year.

Limitations in the sample data mean that this statistic does not represent a conclusive finding that African Americans are disproportionately, systematically underrepresented in DLI programs across the country. It is worth emphasizing that nearly 200 of those 944 schools’ African American enrollment shares were within one percentage point of their surrounding districts’ African American enrollment shares.

African American
Enrollment Share
(2019–20)
African American
DLI Enrollment Share
(2019–20)
Washington, DC63%34%
DC Metro Area41%32%
Portland (OR)9%10%
Oakland23%6%
San Francisco8%5%
Seattle14%18%
Gwinnett County, GA
(Atlanta Suburb)
31%33%
Charlotte-Mecklenburg (NC)36%29%
Los Angeles8%7%
Miami-Dade20%12%
Dallas22%19%
Orlando24%14%
Houston23%18%
New York City22%11%
Source: TCF DLI database from https://tcf.org/content/report/
ensuring-equitable-access-to-dual-language-immersion-programs-supporting-english-learners-emerging-bilingualism

African Americans’ DLI access differs significantly by community, however. For instance, the 2023 TCF report found that while nearly two-thirds of Washington, DC, students are African Americans, only around one-third of students in DC’s DLI schools are.11 Indeed, some members of the local African American community have worried that DLI programs spur further gentrification of their schools and neighborhoods.12

Similarly, a survey asking families in the city’s historically African American Ward 8 about what new school options they wanted in their community placed dual language immersion programs near the bottom of the list.13

DLI enrollment patterns are only slightly different in the broader DC Metro region, where African American students made up 41% of enrollment but just 32% of DLI enrollment. African American students were overrepresented in DLI schools in Maryland’s Prince George’s County Public Schools and Virginia’s Arlington Public Schools—but underrepresented in DLI in DC and Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools.

Meanwhile, other communities show different patterns. African Americans are overrepresented in DLI programs in Portland, Seattle, and Georgia’s Gwinnett County Public Schools, but underrepresented to varying degrees in many other major school districts.

While differences in local demographics, housing, and staffing contexts make it impossible to explain these enrollment patterns in any single way, it’s clear that, in most communities, African American students are underrepresented in DLI schools. Crucially, however, the fact that they are overrepresented in some communities’ DLI schools may indicate that 1) African American communities do seek out DLI programs when they are accessible for their children, and 2) inequitable DLI access for African American students is a solvable challenge.

Now What?
While DLI’s unique benefits for ELs make it understandable that discourse around equitable DLI access has focused on ELs and linguistic integration, this conversation is incomplete. A better view takes a broader frame, recognizing that linguistic, racial, and socioeconomic diversities inevitably intersect with one another across this country. Housing and education systems that have historically marginalized African American children have also—sometimes through similar or overlapping mechanisms— marginalized immigrant families and their children. As such, language-only DLI equity efforts must inevitably produce racially driven access inequities for African American students.14

A better approach to DLI equity begins by prioritizing access for students who have not historically had access to multilingual learning in each community—ELs, but also English-dominant students of color.

This is particularly important because the persistent bilingual teacher shortage in the US makes DLI programs a scarce educational commodity.15 First, education leaders should actively consult with racially and linguistically diverse families when designing and launching new DLI programs. Second, genuinely equitable access to DLI begins with intentionally prioritizing linguistically and racially diverse communities when siting new and expanded multilingual programs. Third, while court decisions have limited schools’ ability to establish specific racial thresholds for enrollment,16 they can still pursue authentically diverse enrollments by giving preferential DLI access to students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.17

This strategy must be tailored to the unique demographics and contexts of each community, however.

But in the end, it mostly comes down to “creating better structures so that families of all identities feel affirmed,” says GPA founder Shaheed. “We want families to say that their children never felt more seen and loved than when they were here.”

Links
1. www.globalprepindy.org/we-are-gpa
2. www.instagram.com/reel/C1AbRuCrdqI
3. https://tcf.org/content/report/why-we-need-to-cultivate-americas-multilingual-multicultural-assets
4. www.chalkbeat.org/indiana/2020/2/13/21178704/what-s-an-ips-innovation-school-here-s-your-cheat-sheet
5. www.globalprepindy.org/we-are-gpa
6. www.in.gov/doe/it/data-center-and-reports
7. https://media.graphassets.com/4MXmCIzpRNi00rMrdDaf#page=9
8. https://tcf.org/content/report/ensuring-equitable-access-to-dual-language-immersion-programs-supporting-english-learners-emerging-bilingualism
9. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/cge/racial-ethnic-enrollment
10. https://infogram.com/conor_report_fig2-1hzj4o3md93eo4p
11. https://tcf.org/content/report/ensuring-equitable-access-to-dual-language-immersion-programs-supporting-english-learners-emerging-bilingualism
12. www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/are-dual-language-programs-in-urban-schools-a-sign-of-gentrification/2018/07/03/926c4a42-68c2-11e8-9e38-24e693b38637_story.html
13. www.ward8post.org/sites/ward8post.org/files/App%2011%20-%20Community%20Survey%20Results.pdf
14. https://tcf.org/content/commentary/the-bilingual-glow-up-why-more-black-students-need-access-to-language-programs-in-d-c
15. https://tcf.org/content/report/how-to-grow-bilingual-teacher-pathways-making-the-most-of-u-s-linguistic-and-cultural-diversity
16. www.chalkbeat.org/2022/10/28/23429007/supreme-court-affirmative-action-k-12-schools-diversity
17. https://tcf.org/content/report/student-assignment-and-enrollment-policies-that-advance-school-integration-a-national-perspective-to-support-planning-in-the-district-of-columbia

Dr. Conor P. Williams is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, where he researches policies affecting English learners’ access to educational opportunities. He is also the founder of The Century Foundation’s EL Forum. Williams is a former teacher and a father of three children in public schools.

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