The families streamed into Tyler Elementary, a squat brick building in the middle of a residential street in the District’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Parents and children packed the expansive auditorium on a Thursday evening, eating free boxed dinners and connecting with friends as they waited for the 6 p.m. meeting to begin.
But what was billed as a typical community forum turned into a difficult debate that hit at a fear permeating so many aspects of District life: gentrification.
Tyler, a school with a predominantly African American student body, has a dual-language track — a curriculum that teaches classes in two languages — and a single-language, creative-arts program. The dual-language program, which teaches courses in English and Spanish, is 34 percent white, while the other program is 7 percent white. The school also has a smaller program that serves children on the autism spectrum.
D.C. Public Schools is considering expanding the dual-language program at Tyler to meet citywide demand, and that possibility has some parents worried the District intends to attract more upper- income families — and drive them out.
“You are trying to push out the minority,” said Kristin Pugh, a single African American mother of a 4-year-old at Tyler. Pugh said she believes that dual-language programs are more suitable for two-parent households who have enough time to help their children with their English and Spanish homework.
“But if that’s what you want to do, do it. It’s happening all over the city,” she said.
On the other side, parents and dual-language advocates say that there are misperceptions about such programs and that the school system needs to make sure all families know that Spanish programs aren’t intended only for wealthy students and Hispanic children who don’t speak English. The parents point to D.C. Public Schools’ own testimonials that dual-language students often outperform their peers who aren’t in such programs on standardized tests and develop better problem-solving skills.
At Tyler, the school system clumps the data from each program together, making it hard to know how the tracks compare. A parent committee’s public records request turned up data — which The Washington Post reviewed — showing that students in the dual-language program perform better on standardized tests. The data do not break down the test results by race or socioeconomic status.
“Education is key to this conversation, and we can’t expect parents to fully trust in an education experience that they didn’t have themselves unless they see what it looks like,” said Linsey Silver, who has two children in Tyler’s dual-language program and is communications director of D.C. Language Immersion Project, a group pushing to expand the city’s language programs.
Conor Williams, a senior researcher at the left-leaning think tank New America who has studied dual-language programs, said providing better information might ease tensions enveloping bilingual education. But he said families’ fears are rooted in something real.
Just look at the schools in the District, Williams said. Charter schools, which educate nearly half of the District’s public school students, are 5.9 percent white.
But dual-language charter schools tend to be disproportionately white. Mundo Verde, one such school, is 32 percent white. At Latin American Montessori Bilingual Public Charter School, 26 percent of students are white.
Six of the 10 charter schools with the longest waiting lists — evidence of high demand — teach classes in multiple languages.
In their ideal form, Williams said, Spanish dual-language programs would educate an equal number of native Spanish speakers and English speakers. That way, students could help their classmates succeed in both languages.
When D.C. Public Schools opens dual-language programs to serve a large population of Spanish-speaking students, the schools eventually become whiter. He cited the 40-year-old Oyster-Adams Bilingual School in Adams Morgan, which is now 30 percent white and 23 percent economically disadvantaged. (Citywide, 80 percent of the public school population is considered economically disadvantaged.)
“There’s no question that we have this correlation pattern in D.C. that wherever you see a dual-language program, you see an increased amount of gentrification,” Williams said. “The longer that a dual-language program is in D.C. Public Schools, the more likely that you will see that it is whiter, wealthier and more [English-speaking] demographics.”
Suzanne Wells, the mother of a recent Tyler graduate and founder of the Capitol Hill Public Schools Parent Association, said that with the growth in Spanish speakers nationally, it’s more valuable than ever for students to speak a second language.
Wells supports the school turning entirely dual-language but said that change should not be forced on the community.
“Let’s educate everybody on what the value is and let them choose,” Wells said. “We know across the city at both D.C. Public Schools and charter schools that some of the longest wait lists are dual-language schools.”
Amanda Alexander, the interim schools chancellor, told the D.C. Council in an April letter that the school system is focused on opening more schools that are entirely dual-language. She said the school system will field community feedback as it determines whether to maintain two programs at schools such as Tyler or to phase out the single-language program.
The school system opened its first dual-language school east of the Anacostia River — a swath of the city with many low-income neighborhoods — last year in the hopes of getting those children to perform on par with their wealthier peers.
But Carla Norde, a mother with a rising first-grader in Tyler’s creative-arts program, said she wants her child to focus on learning core subjects and thinks emphasizing a second language could impede that. Norde, who is African American and a native Washingtonian, tied the increasing popularity of dual-language programs to the city becoming more white and Hispanic, and she doesn’t see where her family fits in.
“The more white parents that get involved in the school, they are the ones pushing these agendas,” Norde said. “We have always been in that school, and we have never been pushing that agenda.”
Parents said it’s logistically complicated to run two big programs in a single school. Tyler parents said that when families in the dual-language track advocate for more resources, it pits the programs against each other.
Sheila Bunn, a parent with a rising third-grader at the Spanish program at Tyler, said she believes the dual-language track is the right fit for her daughter but knows it’s not for everyone. Bunn, the chief of staff for D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), said the city needs to nurture both programs.
“Because there is one segment that is more vocal about issues and concerns means that their concerns get addressed faster,” she said. “The school just needs to work better at making sure both voices are heard.”