The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Language immersion programs growing in D.C., but only west of the river

Jimell Sanders and Antawan Holmes started looking at schools before their daughter, now 15 months old, was born. They wanted to find a school that emphasized foreign languages.

“We think bilingualism and biliteracy are a gift,” said Sanders, who grew up in a military family and lived abroad. “By speaking another language, it will open her up and allow her to engage the world in a different way.”

Citywide, they found lots of options — 13 elementary schools that offer dual language programs — but they were all far away. There was nothing near their Deanwood neighborhood near Prince George’s County, or in all of Ward 7. “Actually, there’s no language immersion programs east of the river,” she said. “It’s disheartening.”

So the couple got involved with the DC Language Immersion Project, an advocacy group organized recently to expand such programs across the city.

“We realized that if we want to see this happen, we have to take it upon ourselves to help grow a program,” she said. The couple hopes to bring a dual language program to their neighborhood school, Houston Elementary, so they don’t have to travel across town.

Demand for foreign language programs is strong and growing, evidenced by applicants from across the city and long waiting lists at the seven traditional public schools and six charter schools that offer immersion programs.

Nationally, the majority of school districts begin foreign language instruction in middle or high school, a starting point that experts say misses important early years when language learning happens more easily. The District offers more foreign language options in elementary schools than many surrounding school districts. And this year, the chancellor expanded funding for foreign language classes in more schools, mostly in the form of introductory level classes.

But Vanessa Bertelli, a parent whose children are learning Mandarin at  Yu Ying Public Charter School, said providing greater access to more intensive foreign language instruction, particularly in wards 7 and 8, is an important fairness issue in the city, because such programs have proven to improve students’ college and career prospects.

“We are at a tipping point,” she said. “The world is more and more globalized and the needs of D.C. are not changing…We need more and more people who speak other languages.”

The DC Language Immersion Project is hosting its inaugural event on Thursday evening at the MLK Library.  It’s a panel discussion about the benefits and challenges of language immersion in urban public schools. The DC Public Library and DC State Board of Education are co-hosts. Education councils and parent groups from around the city have also signed on.