Bilingual, Biliterate, Bicultural. San Antonio’s School District Dual Language Program

Zoraida J. Serrano-Vega
When in 2021, 23 young people, enrolled in the San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) Dual Language Program, received their graduation diplomas, history was made. They were the first class to graduate from this program in SAISD. According to Luz García Martín, this triumph was the result of a “story that is told beautifully,” but it had its pitfalls or the typical difficulties faced by paradigm-shifting proposals.

The Dual Language Program has developed steadily between 2016 and 2022, growing in this time from two to 61 schools. In its classrooms studied those 23 young graduates who also represent the demographics of SAISD: 90.4% of the school district’s students are Hispanic, and 90% live in economically disadvantaged circumstances. The SAISD demographics echo those collected by the Texas Education Agency (TEA), whose Emergent Bilingual Support Division states that one in five students in Texas is emergent bilingual, that is, students who learn and use a language other than English at home and receive formal English education in school, and represent 20% of all students in the state (English Learner Support Division, 2022). For this reason, the Texas Education Code states that, although English is the state’s basic language, public schools must provide bilingual education and special language programs for these students:
Large numbers of students in the state come from environments in which the primary language is other than English.  Experience has shown that public school classes in which instruction is given only in English are often inadequate for the education of those students.  The mastery of basic English language skills is a prerequisite for effective participation in the state’s educational program. Bilingual education and special language programs can meet the needs of those students and facilitate their integration into the regular school curriculum. Therefore, following the policy of the state to ensure an equal educational opportunity for every student, and in recognition of the educational needs of emergent bilingual students, this subchapter provides for the establishment of bilingual education and special language programs in public schools (Texas Education Code).

Speaking with Ms. García Martín, we understand “Spanish” as the language spoken by Mexicans or people of Mexican origin with its respective variants, which is the majority of the variants heard and spoken in San Antonio, Texas. García Martín, a long-time advocate of placing Spanish in the place it deserves, insists that “we must close the gap for the children of Latino immigrants, but avoiding gentrification. The adoption of the Dual Program has always sought to avoid exclusion.” She does not support the Spanish as a Second Language Program since it seeks to incorporate other language speakers and then allow them to graduate from the school system with acquired English to the detriment of their mother language. For this reason, all of SAISD’s bilingual programs are now dual programs. On her side, Ms. Mónica Valderrama clarifies that of six bilingual education program models approved by the State of Texas, SAISD chose the Dual Pathway Program because of its inclusive nature.

This program invites English- and Spanish-speaking students into the same classroom to be educated in both English and Spanish. “The goal is for them to learn both languages at the same academic level,” says García Martín. Both teachers agree that, in the long term, the Dual Program offers students greater and better opportunities for academic and personal development. “Studies show that a student who learns two languages has more linguistic and cognitive advantages compared to a monolingual student,” adds Valderrama.

Starting in 2016, the school district allocated all its resources and efforts to the training and orientation of teachers, principals, parents, and others. “We worked directly with the most relevant figures in the development of this topic: Cummis, Escamilla, José Medina. We brought some of them to offer workshops to teachers,” adds Valderrama, who spearheaded this effort.

Model 80/20
The model 80/20 used in SAISD schools is the result of a joint analysis by a committee composed of teachers, parents, representatives from Region 20 (one of 20 state education support agencies in Texas), teachers from the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), and Dual Program coordinators García Martín and Valderrama.

The model offers students 80% of their classes in Spanish (see Figure 1, indicated in red) and 20% in English (blue). As the student progresses through the program, academic subjects (such as science or mathematics) are taught in alternating languages. Mónica Valderrama explains the importance of focusing the study of academic subjects on vocabulary, because “everything we learn in one language transfers to the other,” and exemplifies this through an experiment conducted in one of the district’s schools: a group of high school students was failing biology class. The teacher decided to teach the class in Spanish and concentrate on teaching specific vocabulary. Students began to demonstrate greater knowledge and mastery of the subject. When they took the standardized test that measures specific knowledge of this subject, they passed it despite having submitted it in English. It should be noted that SAISD used to receive F grades on state test scores. Today its rating is B.

“Linguistic Repertoire Is Beautiful”
This statement by teacher Valderrama and others with similar messages validate the linguistic and cultural experiences that each SAISD child and youth bring to school. “Spanish is at risk,” says Luz García Martín, “English is heard everywhere, on television and in music. Also, historically there are many reasons why people don’t speak Spanish.” Consequently, the school is called upon to ensure that the experience between the student’s linguistic background and what the school offers is positive, inclusive, and respectful. There, Spanglish is not wrong, for example. Rather, it is an opportunity for the teacher to teach one more academic word. For this reason, teachers and students create “walls of regionalisms” with their equivalents in the Spanish literate norm or sets of cognates that facilitate learning. Even if students resort to translanguaging to communicate, they will not find it objectionable. Teachers facilitate learning by acting as models of the language in which they teach the class. Therefore, lessons are taught entirely in the target language.

“Before, it was thought that the student had to adapt to the school,” says Valderrama, “but now, echoing the words of Andrés Calero, it is the school that must adapt to the student.” In fact, this idea affects evaluation and also the selection of materials and texts used in the district, which must be culturally relevant to be both mirrors and windows. That is, students see themselves reflected in them through traits, cultural references, and situations similar to their own. They can also find the possibilities they have for the future, open windows that can lead them to university, to new development opportunities and to explore their options.

SAISD Dual Program students are part of a thriving force that is making its way through Spanish language. They are part of the 37.9% of the City of San Antonio’s population that speaks Spanish at home (World Population Review, 2022). SAISD’s Dual Language Program is both a pioneer and a benchmark: a pioneer because it is the first school district to implement such a program in an organized way, a benchmark for the more than 10,600 students it has served, and because it collaborates with the state of Texas and other schools in developing and sustaining dual language programs.
Luz García Martín (Senior Dual Language Program Coordinator) and Mónica Valderrama (Dual Language Program Coordinator) work in the Independent School District of San Antonio, Texas, United States. This article reflects a conversation held with them.

Zoraida J. Serrano-Vega has a degree in Hispanic Studies with a major in High School Education from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez. She is currently the Coordinator of the Spanish Department at UNAM’s Office in San Antonio.
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