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McKay School Researcher Seeks a Return to Immersion Programs’ Equitable Roots

Teacher teaching students Korean

Juan Freire is a proud parent of three dual-language immersion (DLI) students: as a native of Spain, he is happy that his three chil­dren speak both English and Spanish at school. But Freire, a former dual-language immersion teacher who is now a teacher education pro­fessor at the McKay School, is also a reformer whose research emphasis is American DLI programs. This perspective helps him to not only celebrate multilingual education but also identify changes programs could make to bet­ter meet all students’ needs.

“Today we have a system that will always adjust for the needs of the majority, will always highlight them, and will always center them, often in subtle ways,” Freire says. “We want a system that does not center the academic, cul­tural, and linguistic needs of any one group of students over the needs of the others.”

Bilingual education is older than America itself. To recruit Polish shipbuilders and glass workers, 17th-century colonial governors granted them “the rights of Englishmen,” allow­ing Poles to establish bilingual schools. Since then, schools in the United States have taught in Norwegian, Dutch, Czech, Italian, French, German, Spanish, and more—all to meet the needs of non-English-speaking students.

For example, Spanish-English DLI schools flourished in Florida in the 1960s, when Cubans fleeing the 1959 Communist revolution started programs to help their children grow in their native language and culture. Gradually, white families began to see the benefits of DLI. This caused an explosion in programs and languages offered nationwide. A 2021 estimate counted more than 3,600 DLI programs nationwide, offering about 20 languages—but often tending to push out English-language learners for whom DLI was originally intended.

As an immigrant himself, Freire was not initially aware of these cultural currents. “I learned about Latino parents, their lives, their assets, and what they bring but also their struggles and the barriers they have as they navigate the system,” he says. “My back­ground as half Spaniard and half Ecuadorian helped me be aware of inequities and under­stand their reality here.”

With other researchers, Freire noticed much lower reg­istration by English learners in DLI programs as compared to English speakers, but “there was no research document­ing this concerning trend.” He got to work, studying how DLI programs are promoted—typi­cally as boons to native English-speaking students—and how resources are allocated.

For example, many 50-50 programs in which students learn half the time in English and half in a second language require just one of the two

teachers in each class to be proficient in the partner lan­guage. This prioritizing of the needs of English speakers hurts English learners.

Freire is wary of rigid program models. Instead, he prefers adopting equi­table guiding principles for DLI with flexible alloca­tion of resources and says this approach yields positive results:

  • All students prosper. Research shows no lag in achievement for native speakers learning English in DLI schools, and the positive effects of DLI for English-speaking students are well documented. “The best place for kids learning English is in the dual-language programs,” Freire says.
  • English learners mature in their native tongues. “Think about the gift that is—that these students will continue to learn and grow in their native language,” Freire says. “It would be something to celebrate that they can communicate with their grandpa and grandma in Mexico.”
  • English learners in DLI classes are achievers. Because they are fluent in the second language, Freire says, class­mates and teachers view them as capable classroom leaders: “They become the smart kids.”
Teacher sitting with her students

In other words, Freire says, expand DLI programs, but structure them equi­tably, recruit all learners (including special efforts to recruit English learners), and celebrate building English skills and maturing in a native tongue as much as we celebrate progress in world language learning by white students.

“We want more, more, more DLI programs, but for everyone!” Freire says. “We need to listen and respect and give everyone a voice. Sometimes these things are hard to talk about, but it’s good to talk about the needs of English-language learners.

“It’s not bad to be uncom­fortable as we work through these issues; it helps you grow. And it helps us find ways to do things that work differently—that work better for everyone.”


Written by Stacey Kratz

Photos courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages