Clark County School District proposes dual language program, drawing skepticism about sustainability

In the not-too-distant future, Clark County students could be learning inside classrooms where more than one language is used during instruction.

The Clark County School District has unveiled a plan that would add optional dual language programs to its overall language development approach, though the idea still needs approval from the Clark County School Board of Trustees. The proposed program is rooted in the belief that language acquisition benefits all students, not just those learning English as a second language.

“Purely from a workforce perspective, there is a benefit to the student because they have an additional tool in their tool chest,” said Felicia Ortiz, president of the State Board of Education, who served on an informal advisory committee that has been encouraging the district to start a dual language program. “For families the benefit is that their students are now literate in two languages.”

The school district has suggested a research and development year, which would involve community members, before standing up a dual language pilot program at Ronnow Elementary School, Monaco Middle School and Desert Pines High School for the 2022-2023 academic year. Those schools feed into each other, which would allow participating students to continue the program throughout their K-12 experience. 

So how exactly would it work?

Spanish and English would be the initial languages used, and the program would start at the kindergarten, sixth and ninth grade levels. In the chosen kindergarten classrooms, 90 percent of instruction would be delivered in Spanish, with the remaining 10 percent in English. By fourth grade, students would transition to a 50-50 model, with equal amounts of English and Spanish instruction. In the upper grades, the program would exist in social studies classes before eventually expanded to other content areas.

Ignacio Ruiz, assistant superintendent for the district’s English Language Learner Division, said the approach meshes with studies that show younger children learn additional languages at a faster rate. As a former principal at a dual language school in another district, Ruiz said he watched kindergarten students enter speaking only English and finish the year with a robust understanding of Spanish, or vice versa.

“You really immerse them in the target language at early childhood,” he said.

The program would be optional, with parents needing to opt their children into it. Ideally, Ruiz said, the program would have a fairly even mix of native English and native Spanish speakers.

About 16 percent of the district’s students are classified as English language learners — or, to put it another way, are emerging bilingual students. While so much emphasis is often placed on learning English, the beauty of dual language programs is that they celebrate other languages in the process, said Silvina Jover, an educator at Desert Pines High School who already teaches some of her social studies classes bilingually.

“The culture is completely there and accepted and embraced and acknowledged,” she said.

Jover, who is the product of a bilingual education while growing up in Uruguay, said it was the greatest gift her parents gave her because it “opened the doors of this country and the world.”

Supporters of the dual language program said it could have the same effect on Clark County’s students who already live in an internationally known city, which needs more bilingual workers. If the program launches and grows over time, district officials said they would like to add other languages, such as Tagalog or Mandarin.

“Imagine if everyone coming here said, ‘Wow, I go out in the community and people can speak to me in my language,’” Ortiz said.

District leaders and advocates also hope the program leads to more students graduating with a seal of biliteracy from the Nevada Department of Education. The seal — which was awarded to 2,123 students statewide in the 2019-2020 school year — recognizes graduates who have proven a high level of proficiency in speaking, reading and writing a language other than English.

Not everyone is on board with the proposed plan, though. The school board presentation drew multiple speakers during the public comment period who expressed skepticism about the program’s long-term success and viability, especially given a similar effort decades ago that eventually withered and ceased to exist.

“We did not have enough trained teachers. We did not have leadership that could really support those programs in schools, and these dual language programs regretfully died,” said Sylvia Lazos, a longtime advocate for English language learners. “So if there’s not enough resources and not enough staff, this program will also regretfully die.”

She also questioned why the district’s master plan for English language learner students, adopted in 2016, was seemingly put on pause — a point district leaders refuted. 

Elena Fabunan, the principal of Global Community High School, which specifically serves students new to the country, asked why the district felt compelled to go in a different direction, and one that hadn’t proved successful in the past.

“Why not increase the newcomer program already in place and sustained for more than 15 years?” she said in a recorded public comment played during the board meeting.

District officials emphasized that Global Community High School is not going away, and that the dual language program is merely another pathway for students. 

Although no vote was taken Thursday night, all seven trustees signaled support for the program, even if they had lingering questions about issues such as progress monitoring, staffing and costs.

“I know that a lot of programs failed in the past because whether it be funding or people or man hours or anything like that, but I don’t think that’s a reason not to continue those programs or at least try them again, maybe in a different way,” Trustee Katie Williams said. “Because at the end of the day, it’s best for our kids, and that’s what matters.”

It’s unclear how soon the matter will come before the board for a vote.