WAUKESHA — In an increasingly connected global society, learning a language beyond English is more important than ever.
Director of Multilingual & Global Education Deirdre Garcia has been with the School District of Waukesha for 11 years. During her time with the district, Garcia has helped refine the Dual Language Bilingual Immersion Program and bring it to the community. Garcia advocates for the program, noting that "students are capable of doing this" and "the human brain was designed for communication and learning languages."
The dual language program is a bilingual education program that uses English and Spanish instruction to ensure that graduates of the program are bilingual, biliterate, demonstrate academic proficiency in both languages, and are socio-culturally competent. The program is open to students of all linguistic backgrounds.
"All of our kindergartens feature a combination of students who only speak English at home, only speak another language other than English or Spanish at home, students who only speak Spanish at home, and students who are bilingual at home,” Garcia said.
Native English speakers can enroll in pre-K, kindergarten, or first grade. Other students can enroll at any age. “For young children in particular, we can capitalize on the neuroplasticity of their brains when they are very young, prior to the age of 10,” Garcia said. “Their brain picks up on sounds, vocabulary, and the structure of language in a very natural way.”
During pre-K, students are completely immersed in the Spanish language. In kindergarten and first grade, instruction is 90% in Spanish and 10% in English. During second and third grade, instruction is 70% in Spanish and 30% in English. At this point, students learn to read and write in Spanish first.
“By second grade, all of our students are completely literate in Spanish,” Garcia said. “They transfer all of those skills to begin learning the foundations of reading in English.”
Fourth through eighth grades feature instruction that is 50% in Spanish and 50% in English. As high schoolers, students in the program are offered daily language arts classes in Spanish and take one or two other courses in Spanish. Garcia said that the district will “typically favor content in the STEM area, so science and math.”
The Dual Language Bilingual Immersion Program is offered at four elementary schools (Banting, Bethesda, Hawthorne, Heyer), three middle schools (Butler, Horning, Les Paul), and the three public high schools in Waukesha. More than 2,000 students throughout the district are enrolled in the program.
Bilingual education has existed in the School District of Waukesha since the 1970s, when local parents championed comprehensive education in connection with the decision made in the Lau v. Nichols Supreme Court case mandating bilingual instruction for nonnative English-speaking students to improve their command of the English language. The major restructuring of the dual language program at the School District of Waukesha occurred during the 2011 school year.
“We audited the program and brought it up to alignment with research-based standards and processes for dual language instruction,” Garcia said. “We also began to enroll students who only spoke English at home.”
Students who are not enrolled in the Dual Language Bilingual Immersion Program still have the opportunity to become bilingual. Beginning in sixth grade, the district offers world language courses, and those courses are growing rapidly.
“This year we have record enrollment in our Spanish world language classes,” Garcia said. “We’re adding staff at all of our high schools this year because of the increase in demand.”
Additionally, students can earn the Wisconsin Seal of Biliteracy. Since 2017, the district has graduated more than 300 students with this achievement. Students are tested on language competencies and, upon passing, are awarded the seal. The seal is transferable to 48 other states and certifies that a student is both bilingual and biliterate.
The School District of Waukesha hopes to expand their bilingual dual enrollment options. Dual enrollment at the School District of Waukesha allows students to take college-level courses while still in high school.
“We have a partnership with UW-Whitewater, where they teach students Latin American history through cinema,” Garcia said. Students can also take a medical translation course at Carroll University. There are also three advanced placement courses –— AP Spanish Language, AP Spanish Literature, and AP Spanish Seminar — available to high school students in the district.
Garcia strongly recommends that any parent interested in the program consider enrolling his or her child. The benefits of learning a second language extend beyond an academic setting.
“The importance of being bilingual to some extent in Spanish is a game-changer for students in terms of their ability to interact with everyone in our culture and society,” she said. “We are a global community and we are inextricably and historically linked in ways that make this the right thing to do.”
Despite the fact that having knowledge of only one language is the norm in the United States, monolingualism is not the norm internationally.
“We live on a continent that is multilingual. The majority of our continent speaks a language other than English as their first language. We certainly see the influence of Spanish here in the United States,” Garcia said.
For members of the Latinx community, the dual language program allows students to reclaim part of their culture.
“We have a very large population of second-, third-, and fourth-generation Latino people who because of whatever dynamic here in our community have lost their language and their children don’t have their language,” Garcia said. “This is a way to recapture your family’s heritage language.”
Garcia is a strong proponent of learning another language, especially because this is the norm in other cultures.
“When we don’t speak everybody else’s language, we are at a disadvantage. They know more about us than we know about them,” she said. “There is no reason why learning a second language would be a bad thing.”
Parents interested in enrolling their child in the Dual Language Bilingualism Program at the School District of Waukesha should email Enrollment & Communication Specialist Leticia Campos at firstname.lastname@example.org.