Garland Independent School District, a fast-growing suburb northeast of Dallas, has undergone a dramatic demographic shift. Like districts across Texas, Garland schools are blacker, browner, and more racially diverse than a generation ago. The multicultural panorama in Garland schools is reflected in its academic offerings. Still, in a school district with a Hispanic majority, and a state where more than a third of residents are Spanish speakers, Garland chose Mandarin Chinese as the focus of its newly launched language-immersion program at Weaver Elementary School. Increasing Garland students’ marketability in a global economy was the rationale. “It’s preparing students for the future and hopefully, lots of possibilities as they get older,” the school’s principal, Jennifer Miley, told the Dallas Morning News.
In a break with tradition, more schools are adopting language-immersion programs, in which English and another language are integrated into the curriculum and instruction. The Center for Applied Linguistics, a D.C.-based nonprofit, found an exponential growth in foreign-language immersion in a comprehensive survey of public schools and some private schools. Over a 40-year span language-immersion schools grew steadily, with the largest increase in the decade that started in 2001. Spanish remains the most popular for immersion programs at 45 percent, followed by French (22 percent) and Mandarin (13 percent), with a wide array of languages rounding out the list of 22 selections—from Hawaiian and Cantonese to Japanese and Arabic.
As two-way immersion grows, the variety of language options now available marks a turning point in the evolution of bilingual education. Once the mainstay of immigrant children, bilingual instruction has a new band of converts: English-speaking parents, lawmakers, and advocacy groups. Research shows that students gain cognitive and academic benefits from bilingualism. Yet an overarching reason for the heightened interest is giving U.S. students a jump on the competition in a global workforce. And some activists find even with this flurry of attention, equal access to dual-immersion remains a thorny issue and persistent challenge.
While many states, including Montana and Oregon, have fully embraced two-way immersion, seemingly none has adopted the approach with the intensity of Utah. In a fairly racially and ethnically homogeneous state, Utah invested millions in language immersion teaching Mandarin Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, and Spanish. Governor Gary Herbert set a target in 2010 for the development of 100 programs in intensive dual-language serving 25,000 students by 2015. Utah met that goal two years ago, and the brisk pace continues with the launch of additional programs.
Utah’s expansion of dual-immersion is designed with one major purpose: to make the state’s future workers attractive to global companies. Herbert boasted that Utah was responsible for one third of all Mandarin Chinese classes taught in America’s schools in February 2013 testimony to the U.S. House Education and Workforce Committee. His remarks highlighted the link between dual-immersion programs producing multilingual students and a workforce that attracts business to the state. Gregg Roberts, who oversees Utah’s dual-language initiative, expressed this same viewpoint to The Salt Lake Tribune: “The reason why we’re doing this during hard economic times is this is all about Utah’s future. We’re going to have a generation of kids to come that will really put Utah on the map and bring businesses here because it really is about [our] future economic survival.”