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Bilingual Education: What Does it Mean for Austin's Spanish Speakers?


Nearly a third of all AISD students -- about 25,000 -- are so-called English-learning students, a 35 percent increase over the last five years. Despite programs aimed at encouraging high English proficiency, the district still finds low academic performance among Hispanic students. 

But with the need for qualified bilingual workers and a Hispanic population that is on track to become the majority in Texas by 2040, some wonder what the future of bilingual education means for students in Austin.

According to Olivia Hernandez, director of bilingual education forAISD, the matter is cyclical, if not mercurial.

“It’s gone through its ups and downs – some years in which strong programs that support English learners have been developed," Hernandez said. "And other years in which it has struggled against all-English movements.”

Hernandez said the cycle is currently enjoying an upswing. At AISD, that means better teaching techniques, better programs, and increased emphasis on the importance of learning multiple languages like the Dual-Language Program, a system that has been implemented in schools across the district for the past three years.

“This was the first year our third graders took the STAAR test and we are seeing positive preliminary results. Students in the Dual-Language Program are doing better than students in other bilingual education programs,” Hernandez says.

Those other programs are variations of English as Second Language (ESL) and bilingual programs. Broadly speaking, they can be separated into two camps:

  • Subtractive: ESL and Early Exit Bilingual programs focus on getting the student to learn English in a relatively short period of time without developing their native language.
  • Additive: Dual Language and Late Exit Bilingual Programs focus on developing the student’s native language just as much as English. According to Hernandez, this difference is a key factor in an English learner’s success. 

“Being strong in your native language is very important for many reasons, such as oral language development and the student’s identity – they know who they are, they are proud of who they are,” Hernandez says. “When that is not around it brings a lot of problems to kids who may end up not fully learning English or Spanish.”
Which type of program actually works best – additive or subtractive – has been the subject of debate within the bilingual community for years. AISD has committed itself to the former, even though subtractive programs were employed in the past and are still employed to an extent today.

But how and why different students are placed in different programs is dependent on various factors.

In most cases native and English language proficiency dictates the program in which a student is placed. In other cases, demographics can play a decisive factor.

An elementary school with a very low Hispanic population will not implement a program that develops both languages for five Spanish-speaking students – even if it’s the program those students need to be in. Such students are faced with two choices: enroll in the program the school offers, which will not develop their native language, or transfer to a school that will offer a program which suits them best.

Transferring to such a school, however, comes at a price too high for some families. A new study by the University of Texas suggests that the majority of English learning students in the state of Texas “attend high-poverty and high-minority schools” which  are typically ranked as low-performing.

In addition, parents looking to send students to a Dual-Language program aren't guaranteed placement — AISD has anannual lottery that accepts a limited number of students at each school.

When asked about a possible relationship between AISD’s bilingual programs and low-performing schools, Hernandez suggested different combinations of factors were at play, including the subtractive programs of the past. Ultimately, she refrained from suggesting that the district’s bilingual programs were the primary cause for low performance.

“I think it’s both. There are plenty of studies that suggest that socioeconomic factors do matter and sometimes more than being an English learner, simply because those children don’t have access to the same resources as other students”, said Hernandez. “There is a large gap in terms of children that are not graduating, that are struggling to be in AP and pre-AP courses, but that is why we are implementing additive programs that will develop their native language versus subtractive programs that will not.”

So what will bilingual education look like for Austin’s Spanish speakers?

Preliminary results for AISD’s Dual-Language Program are positive, but the true results will not be seen until children that were enrolled in the program graduate the 5th, 6th, and 7th grades.

Hector was born in Bogotá, Colombia and is in his Junior year of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.
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