Choosing A School For Your Bilingual Child

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What to consider when making a bilingual school choice for your bilingual child

Choosing a school for your bilingual child can be difficult, but by considering all of your options and finding the right fit for your family, school can be a wonderful support for bilingual parents of all shapes and sizes.

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You might be surprised to know that my bilingual children are not in bilingual school- despite the fact that there are quite a few Spanish language and bilingual school options right in our neighborhood. 

So many parents think that bilingual school, if available, is the best solution for supporting the home language outside the home. 

But after teaching public school for 15 years, I have seen schools operate in a way that helps children thrive, and I have seen schools that leave students exhausted, beaten down and miserable. 

Through my teacher and bilingual parent lens, I searched high and low for the best fit for school for my girls, and found something we love- even though they don’t receive Spanish. 

In this article I’ll walk you through the typical schooling options for bilingual parents raising Spanish speaking children in the United States, share with you key factors to consider when touring the schools, and then explain to you why I ultimately did not choose a bilingual school for right now.

Related post: Four Bilingual Parenting Methods

School Options For Bilingual Parents

In the United States, we generally have four options for school for bilingual kids: dual language, spanish language immersion, TINLY/ELA-S programs and monolingual English programs. Here’s a quick overview of each:

Dual Language Programs

These programs aim to have graduates be linguistically proficient in two languages before they leave the program. This means that the school day/week/month/grading period is divided up so that children receive the same academic material in both languages, and are tested for proficiency in both. 

A school may divide this by subject matter (Science and Social Studies in one language, Math and specials in the other), or by time (1 week in English followed by 1 week in Spanish).

In these programs generally there are a team of teachers that work together to create lesson plans in both languages- the ideal situation is to have a native Spanish speaker teach the Spanish and vice versa. 

The student makeup of these programs is ideally 50/50% native language proficiency in kindergarten English/Spanish. 

Pros: Because the class time is divided equally between both languages, both native English and native Spanish speakers have a chance to both use their home language skills and hone their new language skills. This mitigates learner frustration.

Cons: Teacher burnout in these types of programs is high, and funding can be low as generally two teachers are needed per cohort. This makes these types of programs hard to find and even harder to get into because everyone wants them.  This is the program I would like my girls in if it were possible.

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 Spanish Immersion Programs

Spanish immersion programs are when the entire school day is in Spanish with the end goal of students learning Spanish by graduation.

This means every moment in the program is in Spanish. If the program is located inside of a school doing English only, often the specials teachers are shared and the specials will be done in English unless the specials teacher is bilingual (which is not very often).

Usually the children enrolled in these programs do not speak Spanish at the outset of the program but do become second language proficient upon graduation.

Pros: Families who want their children to learn Spanish but can’t provide them support at home to do so love these programs. 

Cons: Because the majority of the students who enroll do not speak Spanish, most of kindergarten and part of 1st grade are spent immersing in language rather than working on reading. The kids catch up, but if your child’s fist language is Spanish, he or she is going to spend a lot of time on numbers and colors before they ever get to the academic Spanish or even new Spanish vocabulary.

If I were to enroll my kids in a program like this, (and I’m thinking about it!) I would wait until 3rd grade where the Spanish proficiency is much higher and those students who are not able to keep up with two languages have dropped out, leaving space for new native speakers. 

TINLY/ELA-S Programs

I honestly didn’t know about these programs until I became a parent researching schools for my older daughter. These programs are geared towards native speakers who receive little to no English language exposure at home. 

These programs were started because bilingual research shows that children who are able to read and write in their home language more easily transfer those skills over to English after they are able to read and write.

These programs start with a strong literacy foundation in Spanish and gradually add more and more English to the program so that children who graduate from the programs are fully biliterate.

The only children who are to enter these programs are those who are completely fluent in Spanish in kindergarten and who indicate Spanish as their first language on their home language surveys.

Pros: These programs are like going to school in Latin America- all Spanish, all the time. All of the kids are native speakers so they navigate socially and academically in Spanish. 

Cons: There is generally very little teacher support and few resources for these programs. Much of the class material is translated from English, teacher created or brought in from Latin America. The teacher pool for this type of academic setting can be very small, and turnover can be very high. 

Note: My children were in this type of setting for several years and are now in English immersion programs.

 English Immersion

This is just regular old American school. Children read, write and speak in English. Those with a second language at home are encouraged to use it at home, but support from the school is not provided for the home language. 

Pros: It’s the way school has always been done in the United States. The best and the brightest teachers can have success here with little burnout. These tend to be community schools where kids thrive. 

Cons:  Bilingual kids are not receiving any home language support at school, and it’s fully up to the parents to keep that tradition alive (which can be exhausting for us). Some teachers are not able to support bilingual kids fully as they do not understand how their brains work.

Note: My children are in this type of academic setting right now. 

Why I chose the program I did

So you might be wondering, given all of these options, why I decided NOT to send my kids to a school with some sort of immersion option. We are a Minority Language at Home family and Spanish is my non-native language although I am completely fluent. I am always looking for ways to enrich my kid’s Spanish, and bilingual school seems like a great way to do so.

I haven’t gone that route though, and here’s why:

  1. Our ELA-S program is just a block and a half away- the program is offered at our community school and both girls received preschool there. However, when my oldest started kindergarten, she was increasingly bored and sad at school. 

The focus was on state testing for funding, and there wasn’t much incentive to push a strong student higher. More ground could be gained by bringing a lower performing cohort up to proficiency. 

This is the reality in many public schools, especially in a pay for performance situation like Denver Public Schools. The teacher just wasn’t interested in going above and beyond to help her love school and learning. That was the MO of the entire school from the top down, and I just didn’t see a future where that would change. 

I felt it more important for her to feel academically challenged than to be bored and sad in Spanish.

  1. We have a Spanish immersion school in our neighborhood also (I know, I know, but hear me out!).  I was a community representative on the board for two years and even wrote grants to secure over $100,000 of funding for the school. 

However, the school attracts very few, if any, native speakers. So my daughter’s peers would not be able to relate to her in Spanish, and her kindergarten year would basically be spent waiting for the others to catch up to her Spanish. I wasn’t interested in that.

  1. In the end, I chose a small English-only private school that provides the academic foundation and the values that we have here at home. The school is technology free, intentionally small, and the teachers are phenomenal.

 Additionally, the school is a needs-based tuition model where everyone pays a similar percentage of their income, but not the same exact dollar amount. This leads to an intentionally diverse environment both racially and socioeconomically. 

Ultimately, I feel extremely confident in our family’s home language plan and commitment to bilingualism. I know that we will stick to the family plan of bilingualism, even if we have some ups and downs.

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Christa Jimenez

Welcome! I’m Christa, a former high school teacher married to a handsome Costa Rican and mother of two bilingual daughters. I love all things Spanish and bi-cultural, (especially travel and food!) and you’ll find my observations on life here. Thanks for stopping by

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  1. Thanks for the tip that I can also look for immersion programs when choosing the right school for my child. I’d like to start browsing for private schools because that might be where I will be able to find such immersion programs. I think it would be crucial for my daughter to be raised in a bilingual environment in order to have an edge later in life.