Dual Language Interview Series: Katarina Brito

In School Year 2016-2017, DCPS will have dual language at 11 schools with new programs at Houston Elementary School, MacFarland Middle School, and Roosevelt High School. We’ve heard a lot of interest from parents across the city about these programs, and will start sharing some information about plans to expand bilingual education at DCPS over the coming months.

We got to sit down with Katarina Brito, a Dual Language Developer in DCPS’ Language Acquisition Division, to talk about dual-language in DCPS! Katarina got her start with us after teaching in California and now works to provide high-quality bilingual education to a growing number of DC Public School students.


School Planning: What do Dual Language programs look like at DCPS?

Katarina Brito: All of our programs are Spanish-English dual language programs; they’re fifty-fifty models which mean that at least fifty percent of instruction is offered in the non-English language starting at kindergarten. Within the fifty-fifty model, there’s another model that is known as “two-way immersion”, where kids who speak both languages learn together in the classroom. There are also one-way programs, in which a majority of students speak English or the non-English language. In DCPS we have all of those models; Tyler Elementary has 90% English speaking kids and a few Spanish-speakers, Powell is 85% Spanish-speaking, and most of our other schools are a mix of Spanish- and English-dominant students – all with half of the instruction in English and half in Spanish.

One thing that’s important to emphasize is that our dual-language schools, no matter the model, all have the same four goals: bilingualism (speaking fluently in two languages), biliteracy (reading and writing in two languages), academic achievement, and cultural competency. Those are our driving forces whenever we’re making decisions. We ask ourselves, “How does this change that we’re making bring us closer to meeting or exceeding our goals?”

Within our schools we have a lot of variety. For example, a school might switch the language of instruction by week, day, half-day, or even classroom. We have a set of non-negotiables which makes sure we have stability in place to meet our goals. In fact, we were just complimented in an article in New America, which highlighted how the dual-language programs at DCPS are particularly responsive to their communities, which calls attention to why we have so many models across the District.

School Planning: Is there data that supports dual-language education models?

Katarina pointed us to some research done on elementary and middle school students, which shows that dual-language programs can provide major benefits for native English-speakers and non-native English-speakers. English Language Learners (ELLs) in dual-language tend to have higher test-scores than students in English-Only programs, and English dominant students in dual-language programs tend to perform at or above the level of peers in English-only classrooms. Additionally, dual-language students show higher rates of self-esteem and self-confidence, drop out of school at lower rates, and experience a smaller achievement gap between English-learners and English dominant students.



Thomas and Collier research results: 40,000 ELLs, proficiency on standardized tests in English. The arrow indicates at about 6th grade, English Language Learners in two-way bilingual immersion begin to perform better academically than the 50th percentile of native English speakers.

School Planning: How have parents and communities responded to Dual-Language?

KB: They’re hugely popular among both English Language Learners and English-dominant students. All of this information has come out on the benefits of bilingualism, and families, especially English-speaking families, are excited to immerse their children in such a program and to have their kids develop second-language proficiency.

We also have a sizable number of students who speak another language at home, like Vietnamese or Amharic, and they’re participating in the dual-language program as well, so they’re actually becoming trilingual.

School Planning: What are some of the biggest obstacles facing Dual-Language in DCPS?

KB: There are big obstacles, but there used to be huge obstacles. We’ve been able to find creative ways around staffing and now have no teaching vacancies in any of our schools. We’ve been able to make this possible through partnerships with foreign countries and recruiting from Puerto Rico and the rest of the US. DCPS is really building a name for itself, so people are coming to us after hearing about our programs. Materials are another issue because we’re working within a system that is designed for English instruction, so there’s a need to be creative to make sure we have appropriate and adequate materials in the non-English language.

Additionally, all of the DCPS Dual-Language schools have just been combined into one cluster, which means that they are grouped together and run by one superintendent. This means that all the DL schools can learn from each other, ask questions based on experience, and provide each other resources that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. It’s been really powerful.

School Planning: Are DL programs being piloted anywhere else in the country?

KB: Yes. There’s a huge upswing of DL programs in the nation because of all the research and articles which have come out, proving the benefits of bilingualism. Places like Oregon, and North Carolina are on the cutting edge. In the state of Utah, the governor has committed to opening 100 dual language programs in the year and the state of Delaware is doing the same. California, Texas, and New Mexico all have strong programs as well. It’s popping up everywhere.

School Planning: How do dual-language programs integrate “cultural competency” in schools?

KB: Last year was our first year to offer the Seal of Biliteracy award to high school students who can prove bilingualism and biliteracy. To get the Seal, students have to prove that they’ve taken coursework in English, taken coursework in the non-English language, and have evidence of a cultural competency activity. For example, one recipient did an internship in Mandarin, one student did volunteer work in a French-speaking country, and another went to baseball camp in the Dominican Republic.

The award serves as well-earned recognition for these students that have continued their bilingualism beyond their dual-language programs. It really shows that these programs can have an impact beyond the years students are enrolled in DL programs. We want to keep kids motivated to pursue their dual-language fluency.

School Planning: Is there anything else you’d like the DCPS community to know about dual language programs?

KB: In 2005, there were maybe 500 kids in DL and this year we have 3000 plus. There’s a lot of talk about how there aren’t enough programs out there, but we’ve expanded six-fold. We also didn’t used to have early-childhood, we didn’t used to have high school or middle school programs and now we have it from Pre-K through 12th grades. We’ve grown a great deal over the past ten years and are continuing to explore where we go from here.


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