Demystifying dual language learning
Perla Rodriguez, the longtime principal of Echo Shaw Elementary School, knows the value of dual language schools.
Echo Shaw was the first to adopt the model in the Forest Grove School District, and Rodriguez has seen how far local and state efforts have grown to create new generations of Spanish- and English-proficient students.
Rodriguez says it not only helps students communicate and compete in an increasingly global workforce, but it’s also just better for their education in general. Students don’t just learn language skills in two languages — they learn all their subjects in both English and Spanish, which helps retention.
“There’s an idea that the goal is devalue English, but that’s not dual language,” Rodriguez explained. “What we want is high levels of proficiency in English and Spanish. It’s not ‘either/or,’ it’s ‘and.’”
Rodriguez has championed improvements in dual language schools during her three decades in education, most recently as a principal of both Echo Shaw and nearby Cornelius Elementary.
Rodriguez first started teaching for the Forest Grove School District in 1998, teaching third-grade dual language proficiency and Spanish literature.
Despite Forest Grove being ahead of many other school districts in Oregon in implementing dual language programs, Rodriguez said there were still barriers to implementing these programs then.
“There was a real discrepancy in what we could provide as materials — that is now not the case,” Rodriguez said.
She remembers translating English materials into Spanish herself for the program.
“When you want students to feel that their language is appreciated and valued, kids pick up on things,” Rodriguez said. “So, (they wonder) if it’s so important, why is this book that we’re reading in English so beautiful and hard-backed and colorful, but when we read in Spanish, it’s like something my teacher typed on just a piece of paper?”
Rodriguez said it’s important for students in all schools to feel their culture and language is valued, but it’s especially important in Cornelius, a city that is nearly 51% Hispanic or Latino, according to the latest U.S. Census data.
“I was thrilled by the idea that I could become a dual language teacher and create classrooms … where (kids) could bring their home language, their home culture and where they could learn a second language — whether it was Spanish-speakers learning English or vice versa,” Rodriguez said of why Cornelius appealed to her.
Despite strides, dual language schools have had to overcome some hurdles to become what they are today, and sociopolitical barriers remain.
Hesitancy about dual language learning doesn’t just come from parents who don’t see the value in their children learning in Spanish. Rodriguez says she has also encountered Spanish-speaking parents who are wary of their kids speaking and learning Spanish in school.
“In that case, they’ve experienced something because of their Spanish-speaking that they feel it’s something to protect their kids from,” Rodriguez said. “And it just breaks my heart. But we do all we can to explain that the research is clear that your child’s academic English will be better if we begin with the language that they have.”
Rodriguez pointed to high proficiency rates in language and other subjects in the Forest Grove School District, despite higher-than-average poverty rates in the district, to show how dual language teaching works.
Rodriguez was honored as the 2018 Oregon Elementary School Principal of the Year by the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators for her accomplishments in dual language education.
The progress she’s seen among her students because of the strides made to support dual language is why Rodriguez said she always set out to find a program like the one offered at Echo Shaw. She said it’s also why she wanted to be an administrator.
“It was exciting thinking of all the cool things I could do in my classroom with my students, I could do that for an entire school,” Rodriguez said.