As dual-language parents and educators scramble for ways to improve their schools, meet students’ needs, and push back against a test-score-driven educational culture, many in the field may wonder what the right path might look like. Often, dual-language programs grow organically and without much uniformity, essentially “reinventing the wheel” with the formation of each new program. Knowing this, it is essential to promote knowledge sharing, create standards, provide resources and curriculum materials, and ensure that teaching practices are consistent with those of successful dual-language programs. To continue the Bilingual Revolution and cut back on the significant workload that inherently comes with the implementation of new kinds of educational offerings, it is equally important to learn from pioneer schools that have already developed their own resources and forge a path to success.
An Exemplary Model
The High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies stands out as an example from which much can be learned. Founded in 2003, the school is a highly competitive institution with a student population of both native English and Mandarin speakers. Located in downtown Manhattan on the fifth floor of an old school building, the school serves over 400 students who come from families who speak English, Spanish, Bengali, and a combination of Chinese dialects, including Mandarin, Cantonese, Taosonese, Fuzhonese, Shanghainese, and Wenzounese. The high school has consistently demonstrated excellence in English and mathematics, among other subjects. Despite its relatively high proportion of economically-disadvantaged children, the school continues to place competitively in national and state rankings, as evaluated by students’ performance on state-mandated tests and college-readiness. As defined within its mission statement, the school is:
Devoted to providing quality instruction and guidance counseling to promote the academic and social development of our students as well as their linguistic capacity, cultural appreciation, and international and global awareness.
More importantly, as the vast majority of dual-language programs in the United States abruptly end after 5th grade, this school occupies a unique position as one of the rare public high schools in the United States that offers a dual-language program.
The High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies is among the schools featured in “Schools to Learn From,” a noteworthy study undertaken by Stanford University with the support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. In their case study, the authors did an in-depth analysis of the dual-language program in order to understand why this school in particular succeeded exceptionally well in preparing its students for college and future careers. In their interviews with the school’s students, parents, and educators, the researchers highlighted the school community’s “relentless commitment to serve students and a focus on their strengths and needs.”
The praises sung by these authors lend legitimacy to the steadfast efforts of the school community to establish itself as a force to be reckoned with in bilingual education. Their tireless work ethic and constant drive to achieve success have propelled the school to the national and international stage, a testament to their efforts.
A Cultural and Linguistic Curriculum
Unlike other cities, high school selection in New York is an open choice process whereby each middle school student may choose up to twelve schools from a list provided by the Department of Education. To be accepted by the High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies, students need not speak both Chinese and English because of the school’s two tracks: one for English speakers and one for Chinese speakers. As a result, some students begin their language immersion at a very late age. Professor Ron Woo describes the ambitious goals of the program as the following:
The model was built on the notion that by the time they’d finished, they would be fully bilingual. Those who started with no Chinese would catch up over the four-year period. The Chinese speakers were already bilingual, or would be catching up on their English because they were immigrant students. By the time they got to their second year, you might see them co-existing in the same classes. There is a spectrum of language levels, which creates some tension, but at least there is something there.
As Professor Woo points out, this speedy transition throughout high school from monolingualism to bilingualism is a noble, albeit sometimes demanding, goal. Affording high school students the opportunity to start and become fluent in a second language at the high school level, as is possible at the High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies, is an incredible achievement.
The educational backgrounds of both Chinese-speaking and English-speaking students at the school vary widely. Some Chinese-speaking students were born in China and attended elementary and middle school there before moving to the United States to complete their education at the high school level. Others were born in the United States, relocated to China during their childhood, and returned to the United States to complete their high school careers. Students who are English-proficient vary in their linguistic backgrounds and Chinese abilities, and a number of them are former English Language Learners. The school also serves students whose primary language is English and have no Chinese proficiency prior to coming to the school. This group is drawn to the program because of their interest in the Chinese language and culture, as well as the school’s focus on biliteracy. The High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies offers students a multifaceted curriculum. In addition to their other subjects, all students take four years of Mandarin, either in the form of a native language arts class or Chinese as a second language. Native English-speakers attend a double period of Chinese every day to ensure that they are prepared to pass the required Chinese Regents and Advanced Placement (AP) Chinese exams, in addition to the five other exams a student must pass to qualify for a New York State Regents diploma with honors. Teachers work alongside guidance counselors and parent coordinators to help students select their courses and lend additional support to students who need it.
Most of the students at the high school come from recently-arrived immigrant families that have been in the United States for less than ten years. These learners require additional services to ensure their academic success due to language barriers and the added challenge of adapting to a new culture. To assist these students and their families in overcoming these obstacles, all written materials are provided in English, Chinese, Bengali, and Spanish. Staff members also go the extra mile when they can, as the principal, school secretary, guidance counselor, and several teachers are all bilingual and able to translate any materials the school provides that are not written in both languages.
The school also provides an enriched high school experience, emphasizing a rigorous academic curriculum for students from diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds in both English and Chinese. Thalia Baeza Milan, a current junior at the school, already spoke English and Spanish when she arrived in the United States three years ago from Guyana, and was eager to take advantage of the opportunity at the High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies to learn Chinese. She describes her time at the high school in these terms:
The experience has helped me appreciate different cultures and work through difficulties—like mixing up the words for “fried chicken” and “acrobat.” I know the steps to overcoming challenges and the steps to being comfortable in an environment I’ve never been in before. That’s something that will be helpful.
Thalia points to the productive “struggle” of language learning that many bilingual children grow to appreciate and value. This process, although challenging and humorous at times—as Thalia points to in her language mix up—generates deeper learning, builds authentic engagement, and emphasizes the various building blocks of comprehension that are applicable to so many skills in life.
In addition, the school introduces students to a variety of Asian cultures, with a primary focus on China. When students are not engaged in the rigorous academic program, they can participate in clubs ranging from film and computer science to varsity sports such as badminton and wrestling. In preparation for university, students also have plenty of opportunities to earn college credit, tour campuses, and compete for scholarships. Some students even participate in a Saturday school program at the high school, utilized for instructional work. The program includes physical education and additional English as a Second Language classes and serves approximately 150 kids each week. It also affords students a community space to complete homework or projects, as they may not have the space or environment to work productively at home. This approach has proven to be very efficient in increasing students’ academic performance and overall engagement with the school.
For the Bilingual Revolution at large, the story of the High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies is insightful. Imagine the realm of opportunities that would spring from dual-language high schools, continuing the incredible accomplishments of existing dual-language elementary and middle school programs that serve populations of fully bilingual students. The sky is the limit for these high school programs, and the High School for Dual Language and Asian studies is just the beginning. There is no reason why the Bilingual Revolution should stop in primary schools. In fact, by embracing secondary education dual-language programs, we afford our children the opportunity to become highly successful multilingual individuals, prepared to enter the academic and professional arenas with the tools they need to succeed. The story of the High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies is a story of unparalleled success that can be replicated in high schools across the country and the world. The Bilingual Revolution has the power to touch children’s lives through adolescence, young adulthood, and beyond. It is up to us to provide them the opportunity to do so.