By: Catherine Pulupa and Rebecca Rubin Damari from the University of Maryland’s National Foreign Language Center

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Widespread outrage in response to the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many other Black people, has brought heightened awareness to a variety of aspects of systemic racism and inequalities in the United States. Inequity of access to educational resources is inextricably linked with other sources of structural inequity facing Black people and other marginalized groups. In Washington, DC, much of the educational inequity is linked to historical redlining and systemic segregation of neighborhoods that affects student opportunities to this day. The DC school lotteries, especially the common lottery introduced for the 2014–2015 school year, attempt to mitigate these geographical factors by giving families some choice in which schools their children attend.

In 2019, DC Immersion and the National Foreign Language Center investigated the demographics of dual-language immersion (DLI) programs in Washington, DC through 2016, to inform the debate over equity of access to DLI programs, which are among the most highly regarded and in-demand special programs in the DC school system. The finding that DLI schools are racially/ethnically more diverse, on average, than non-DLI schools in the same ward, was encouraging for DLI programs, given the academic and social benefits that come with learning in diverse classrooms . 

Importantly, however, we found that DLI schools had smaller proportions of Black students and larger proportions of Hispanic students, on average, than non-DLI schools, probably due in part to the locations of the schools closer to large Hispanic communities and farther from large Black communities. (The larger proportions of Hispanic students are also explained in part by a lottery preference among DCPS DLI schools that reserves a portion of seats for Spanish-dominant students.) DLI schools also enrolled significantly lower proportions of at-risk students than non-DLI schools; in elementary school, an “at-risk” designation means that a student meets one or more criteria of living in poverty. This difference in enrollment likely reflects both the placement of DLI schools in wealthier wards and the popularity of these programs among families of higher socioeconomic status. 

The current distribution of DLI programs in Washington DC
Source: DC Immersion

A striking illustration of geographical inequity of opportunity can be seen in the location of DC’s language immersion programs: As of 2020, 23 DLI programs are located west of the Anacostia River, while there are just two, relatively new programs, east of the river in the wards with the highest percentages of Black students and at-risk students. Despite families’ ability to apply to the lottery for any traditional public or public charter school in the District, the realities of geography and transportation limit the schools that are practical for a student to attend, with most students attending a school within a 20-minute drive of their home. This reality makes it harder for students in Ward 7 and Ward 8 to attend a DLI school. Given the substantial demand for DLI programs and their proven benefits for Black students and students of lower socioeconomic status, more DLI programs should be opened in neighborhoods with large numbers of Black and at-risk students, and investments should be made in targeted outreach to families of Black and at-risk students. Because demand so far outpaces supply in DC’s DLI programs–with estimates of at least 10 students on a waitlist for every seat in a DLI program–adding DLI programs east of the river can also act as a tool to help integrate schools.

The two DLI programs that have recently opened east of the river provide some anecdotal evidence of the integrating potential of DLI programs in majority Black, majority at-risk neighborhoods. In 2016, Houston Elementary School opened a new DLI program at its facility in the Deanwood neighborhood of Ward 7, where typically only 20-25% of students enroll in their neighborhood schools. The new program attracted many local families, as well as families from outside the neighborhood, leading to a kindergarten waitlist for the first time, and increasing the socioeconomic diversity of the school population. The DLI school Elsie Whitlow Stokes Public Charter School, which already had a campus in Ward 5, opened a new campus in Ward 7 in 2018. Most of the students at the new campus come from Wards 7 and 8, with substantial numbers also coming from other wards, comprising a majority-Black student population with substantial numbers of White and Hispanic students. 

To be clear, the recommendation to add more DLI programs in these neighborhoods is not a recommendation to add strand or magnet-type programs to already-existing English-language schools. When schools have separate strands for highly-desirable programs such as language immersion, within-school segregation can arise, intensifying inequities between neighborhood students attending the school and students drawn to the school for the strand program. Thus, existing strand DLI programs should be accessible by-right to in-boundary students in high at-risk neighborhoods, just like the English-language strand in the same school. New immersion programs should be introduced as whole-school models, to avoid within-school segregation.

Many causes contribute to institutional racism in America; education is only a piece of a larger puzzle. But given the social, academic, and economic advantages of bilingualism–combined with the advantages of learning in a diverse environment–increasing accessibility of DLI programs to DC’s Black and at-risk students can provide those groups of students with more choices and more opportunities.

The full report on our study can be found at https://dcimmersion.org/demographicsequity/.

Organizations Doing Anti-Racist Work in DC Education

Learn Together, Live Together is a local coalition promoting integration in DC schools. They have resources on their website for what to read, watch, and listen to, and actions to take in order to support school integration.

Integrated Schools, which has a DC chapter, invites White and privileged families to explore the value of opting in to integrated or integrating schools.

Teaching for Change provides tools for teachers and parents to support students to become global citizens and advocate for civil rights and racial equity.

More Resources

Regarding educational segregation in DC:

Regarding DLI programs and segregation/desegregation:

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