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The case for dual language education in Rhode Island

More than 1 in 5 Rhode Island residents speak a language other than English at home. Rhode Island employers across sectors recognize the value and critical importance of a multilingual workforce — for international trade, health care, education, and careers we have yet to imagine. Despite having a rich linguistic diversity, Rhode Island is failing to capitalize on this potential.

English Learners (ELs) represent the fastest-growing student population in Rhode Island According to Rhode Island Department of Education’s (RIDE) student census, Rhode Island’s EL and monitor population has grown from 9,683 students in 2012 to 13,593 students in 2017, which is a 40 percent increase over a five-year period. The top 6 languages spoken by ELs are Spanish, Portuguese-based Creoles, Arabic, Portuguese, Mayan Languages, and Chinese, many of which are key languages for the Rhode Island economy. Although the research is clear that dual language (DL) is the only program model for ELs that closes the achievement gap (Thomas & Collier, 2012), only 1 percent of Rhode Island ELs are enrolled in DL programs. In a 2017 report from the Annie Casey Foundation, Latino children in Rhode Island were found to be last in the nation in terms of progress on the national and state levels in key education, health, and economic milestones. While not all Latinos are receiving EL services, the vast majority are bilingual or multilingual when they enter Rhode Island schools, yet are losing their home languages through our public education system.

This news is not new for Rhode Island. The question is, are we going to act?

On this International Mother Language Day, we urge Rhode Island to commit to developing our languages and providing pathways to multilingualism for all students. Teaching our children multiple languages starting early in Pre-K or kindergarten is a great investment that will increase their competitiveness in an increasingly global economy.

We have seen an increased emphasis on certifying Rhode Island teachers to work with English learners, which is positive. Yet there has been minimal emphasis from the state on preparing dual-language immersion/bilingual education teachers who teach all academic subjects in a partner language. Dual-language programs serve all students, regardless of special needs, native language, or ability. In Two-Way Immersion (TWI) programs, about half of the students are native speakers of English and half are native speakers of the “partner” (non-English) language, as in the DL programs in Providence Public Schools. In One-Way programs, most students in the classroom are new to the partner language, as in the South Kingstown DLI Program.

Demand for dual-language immersion (DLI) is 200 percent on average in Rhode Island, meaning that for every seat in a dual-language classroom, there are two children vying for that seat. Students in only 9 out of 306 Rhode Island public schools are currently enrolled in dual-language immersion programs leading to full bilingualism and biliteracy.

We have the opportunity as a state to capitalize on our linguistic and cultural strengths and position ourselves as an educational leader, preparing our youth for careers in the global economy. Rhode Island has made record investments in education with the expansion of career and technical education, computer science for all, and early childhood education programs. Now it is time to ensure that all Rhode Island students have access to a multilingual education; our future depends on it!

We can start by supporting the World Language and Dual Language Immersion Act, Senate Bill 0198 and House Bill 5192. These bills would establish a dual-language program fund and a world language and dual language immersion specialist position at RIDE to lead and coordinate efforts across the state. Join us to advocate for state-level support for a #MultilingualRI at Rhode Island’s first Multilingual Education Advocacy Day (bit.ly/multilingualri) at the State House on Tuesday, April 23, from 3 to 5 p.m.

Hos, a Ph.D., originally from Turkey, is a resident of East Greenwich, an assistant professor of TESOL/bilingual and dual language education at University of Rhode Island and a member of the Rhode Island EL Advisory Council and the Advocacy Committee of the Rhode Island Foreign Language Association (RIFLA).

Papa, a Ph.D., a lifelong Rhode Islander, is a resident of Providence, an assistant professor of world languages education and educational Studies at Rhode Island College, a graduate of URI’s International Engineering Program, and Advocacy Chair of the Rhode Island Foreign Language Association (RIFLA).

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