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Region’s demand for bilingual workers is booming. Should D.C. schools offer more dual-language programs?

D.C. schools chief Antwan Wilson visits a fifth-grade math class at the Brightwood Education Campus in Washington. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Advocates for bilingual education and District leaders argued Thursday that the Washington region’s workforce has a growing demand for bilingual speakers that could be filled by D.C. public school graduates if the school system boosted its dual-language education programs.

The panel discussion featured D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson, school leaders from Delaware and New York, an economics researcher and the Swiss ambassador to the United States, who highlighted the advantages of bilingualism in Switzerland.

Hsi-Ling Liao presented her research from the New American Economy showing a 148 percent jump in bilingual job postings in the Washington region since 2010 and a 131 percent bump in job postings calling for at least some second-language skills. The majority of these jobs are for Spanish speakers, though a significant number of employers are seeking French, Arabic and Chinese speakers.

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In 2016, the top employer seeking bilingual speakers in the region was MGM National Harbor, which posted 465 jobs for bilingual speakers, according to the New American Economy study. Bank of America and Wells Fargo also sought employees who could speak more than one language, posting 415 and 393 bilingual jobs, respectively, in 2016.

Wilson, who took the helm of the school system about three months ago, said that increasing language immersion programs in schools was a top priority for him. “D.C. has an opportunity to lead the country in this work,” he said. “It’s high on my list to get done.”

The chancellor referred to studies showing that students enrolled in dual-language programs also perform better in English and other subjects, including math. Other studies indicate that the success of such programs hinges on how effective bilingual teachers are in the classroom.

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Dual-language options are in high demand in the District, with the 14 traditional public and charter elementary schools offering such programs and long waiting lists each year. This academic year, D.C. Public Schools opened its first dual-language school east of the Anacostia River at Houston Elementary.

Also on the panel Thursday, Angelica Infante-Green, deputy commissioner of the New York State Education Department’s Office of Instructional Support, stressed that dual-language programs shouldn’t only be reserved for traditionally high-achieving schools but should be offered in special education and low-performing schools, as well.

“This is for all kids,” she said.

The DC Language Immersion Project and D.C. Workforce Investment Council hosted the event at the downtown Washington offices of Perkins Eastman, an architecture firm that designs schools.