Do Black Lives Matter in Dual Language Education in Urbana School District 116?

Several months ago I wrote a blog post entitled “Do Black Lives Matter in Bilingual Education?” After writing this blog post I was able to connect with Joseph Wiemelt, the Director of Equity and Student Learning; Bilingual & Multicultural Programs for Urbana School District 116. He shared with me the work that his district has undertaken to ensure that black students have equitable access to dual language programs. I was so excited to hear about this work that I invited him to submit a guest post to the blog. I am certain that many of you will find his experiences relevant to your work advocacy work.

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Do black lives matter in bilingual education in my school district? That was the question I asked myself after reading Dr. Flores’ critical post on exploring the concept of #blacklivesmatter in bilingual education. As Director of Equity & Student Learning; Bilingual & Multicultural Programs for Urbana School District 116 (USD116), it particularly resonated with me.

Pulling from Dr. Flores’ five ways related to how anti-blackness may have influenced the discourse and decision making in our implementation, I will analyze how some of these issues complicated the process of establishing a dual language program in one elementary school that served a predominately black neighborhood. Additionally, I will highlight the successes of how we have intentionally worked to serve black students, and all students across race, as well as the areas of struggle that we are continuously working to improve in order to provide an equitable dual language program that serves all students.

In 2012, USD116 decided to phase out transitional forms of bilingual education to start dual language programs in order to improve the opportunities for emergent bilingual Latinx youth. While we were cautious around the idea of Fetishizing Two-Way Immersion Programs as the Gold Standard of Bilingual Education, we still believed that we could move to dual language programs and also be intentional in our approach to ensure a quality program for Latinx children and our entire community across race, including black students.

As such, this resulted in expanding the program to multiple schools. Because USD116 has neighborhood attendance boundaries for elementary schools, and due to racially segregated neighborhoods across the community, several elementary schools reflect the neighborhoods that they serve. With this in mind, the decisions to determine which schools would house the dual language programs became intertwined with issues of race and racism. Moreover, questions related to access and opportunity to be part of the dual language program was complicated by assumptions and perspectives of which schools, and therefore which students and families, would be most appropriate to start a dual language programs. While the importance of ensuring excellent bilingual programs and opportunities for Latinx youth was at the center of this work, the questions related to who the “English speaking students” would be was also a key equity initiative.

Assuming Native English Speakers to be White was a key issue that we have faced. In the process of considering which schools would house the dual language program, the district considered multiple schools for this opportunity. The overall community was excited for the plan to implement dual language programs and many families across racial groups expressed their interest. However, when the possibility of starting a program at the school of predominately black students arose, questions and concerns related to whether or not the program would be effective and successful surfaced. While explicit conversations related to whom the “native English speakers” should be did not necessarily take place in public, the implicit messages being sent related to why would we even consider putting a dual language program at this school were present. From online, anonymous comments in the local newspaper to behind the scenes comments, people across the community questioned whether or not this would be a wise decision due to the assumption that this program would be better for white students who “spoke English well” rather than black students who “didn’t speak English well”.  As Dr. Flores states, explicitly naming who the students are who come from positions of privilege (white native English speakers) and those who come from positions of oppression (black native English speakers) was important for us to acknowledge.

Even with the racialized discourse surrounding this decision, the school district received board approval to start the program in one predominantly white school and one predominantly black school. From there, the work began to ensure that black and Latinx student enrollment was equitable and accessible, and the work to prepare to serve both student groups well was initiated.

Ignoring English Language Variation is also an area that has challenged our work. We have had to continuously work at changing the narrative around language variation across English and Spanish. All too often, black vernacular is viewed in deficit-oriented ways, especially in the school setting, similarly to how different language varieties of Spanish can be viewed as “informal”. As such, we have had to work diligently at understanding language varieties across both English and Spanish while also working to better understand the concept of translanguaging for emergent bilingual youth in the US context, with a particular focus on how students across different racial and linguistic groups translanguage.

Now, five years into our program, we have seen great success in the enrollment and success of black, Latinx and white students in the dual language program across schools. We have waiting lists of students from English only backgrounds across race applying from all over the community to get into the school and the program. This is the same school and program that was once questioned as whether or not the students and families were the “right fit” for dual language. Today we continuously get visitors who are surprised that black students are enrolled in the dual language program and doing so well. Interestingly enough, many times I have given tours of our classrooms and people are shocked to see black students speaking Spanish, becoming bilingual, and developing biliteracy skills.

Erasing the Experiences of Afro-Latinxs was also to be a key issue that was overlooked and misunderstood, and is still an area of struggle. Questions related to the key equity issues of ensuring that our educators reflect the students we serve are important ones. Usually in the context of bilingual education we understand this to be focusing on the increase of Latinx teachers in our bilingual programs. However, if black lives matter in bilingual education, we have to ensure that we also have black teachers and Afro-Latinx teachers. Through past teacher recruitment efforts we have worked to ensure an increase in US Latinx and bilingual teachers, and we have also begun working to recruit and retain Afro-Latinx teachers. Not only is it important for all of our students to see themselves reflected in the teaching staff, we also want to continue to strengthen our curriculum and units of study to reflect the students we serve.

Positioning bilingual education as a panacea for racial inequalities is also an area we are challenging. While we have advocated and argued that strong dual language programs have the potential to be transformative in our community, we also acknowledge that even strong dual language programs are still situated in a broader system of white supremacy and racism across the country. As part of our district wide unified professional development plan, our district has made a commitment to racial equity in order to dismantle inequitable practices and rebuild them through an intentional equity-oriented approach. As such, our dual language program staff is working on being critical of our own practices within our dual language programs that serve a multiracial community.

Lastly, in the conversation related to black lives and bilingual education in USD116, we need to take a hard look at our educational plans to serve the growing population of African immigrant emergent bilinguals and trilinguals from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Outside of the context of Spanish/English bilingual education, populations of low incidence languages are often underserved in schools. Thus, our approach to serving our black emergent trilingual students across Lingala, French, and English must be a critical component of our district wide efforts to serve all students moving forward.

As Dr. Flores states, “The only way to ensure that bilingual education is a tool for social change is to ensure that it is situated within a broader project that seeks to dismantle anti-Blackness. Anything less than this is tantamount to treating Black lives as if they don’t matter”. At USD116 we are working to ensure that our bilingual education programs are a part of this broader project. While we have many areas we have to improve, and our programs are not perfect, particularly for black and Latinx students, we have and will continue to work to change the norm that black lives don’t matter in education, and bilingual education in particular.

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