How Teachers & Leaders Facilitate Integration in a Two-Way Dual Language Immersion Program

There was major school integration news that you might have missed in the frenzy of these pandemic times: Connecticut’s Sheff v. O’Neill case – originally filed in 1989 – reached what is likely to be its final settlement. This post is about two-way dual language programs, not Sheff, but it’s all connected.

First, briefly, for those who are unfamiliar, the Sheff case led to a suburban open choice program and urban magnet schools designed to facilitate two-way integration in the Hartford area. It was featured in part 2 of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ immensely influential series on This American Life, and it’s been written about a lot and there are documentaries, etc. The settlement is big. This article has a detailed summary as well this this statement from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Most notably, the state has agreed to:

  • Spend at least $22 million over 10 years to create about 3,000 additional seats across magnet schools in Hartford and suburban schools.
  • Provide seats for at least 95% of students who want seats in desegregated schools (again, in Hartford or suburbs) by 2032.

The settlement still needs to be approved and funded by the state legislature, but the agreement between the parties is obviously a major step forward. Under the plan, CT will also remain under court injunction (so, no new settlements unless plaintiffs submit a claim of noncompliance) until 2032, and that injunction will end if that state meets 95% of the demand for seats. So, the demand part is key- 95% of a high demand is a lot of children in desegregated schools, 95% of low demand is obviously fewer students in desegregated schools.

This means that suburban students have to want seats in Hartford magnet schools and suburban districts have to make seats available for students who live in Hartford. The latter can be especially tough, as we’ve already seen in the weeks since the settlement. To incentivize desegregation in suburban schools, the new settlement offers those schools an additional $2,000 for each Hartford student they enroll.

As is the case in voluntary integration plans across the country, educational programming will change as well in order to spark demand for seats in desegregated schools, for learning experiences that provide the academic and socio-emotional benefits that are connected to integrated schools. Two-way bilingual instruction is one of those educational strategies with lots of promise for meaningful cross-cultural learning. The Sheff settlement even specifically includes plans to build a dual-language magnet in Hartford. There’s so much more potential in Hartford and in a potentially groundbreaking case in New Jersey (which will resume oral arguments in March) as well as voluntary integration plans unconnected to state lawsuits.

We unfortunately don’t have a lot of research on strategies to ensure that dual-language programs reach their full potential. In fact, until very recently, we didn’t know how many dual-language programs existed in the US or where they were or what languages they taught. This national canvass sheds light on all of those questions. The release for the report states that “now that we know more about the number of programs (3,600 across 44 states) we need to move forward with additional information on enrollments and program models.” The guest authors for this post – Jennifer Ayscue and Elizabeth Uzzell at North Carolina State University – are working on exactly those questions. In a previous post, they wrote about their study of benefits/outcomes for students in dual-language programs. This follow-up post summarizes their recently published research on the interaction between teacher beliefs/decision-making and district level policy.

How Teachers and Leaders Facilitate Integration in a Two-Way Dual Language Immersion Program, Jenn Ayscue and Elizabeth Uzzell

Despite the increasing racial and linguistic diversity across the United States, school segregation has been intensifying. English learners often experience triple segregation in that they are segregated by race, socioeconomic status, and language. Two-way dual language immersion (TWI) programs, which are designed to enroll 50% native English speakers and 50% speakers of a partner language, may provide an opportunity to create an integrated learning environment in which students from different racial and linguistic groups experience fair and equal treatment as well as authentic, meaningful, equal-status interactions with members of different groups. Recently, scholars have begun to explore how TWI programs are structured in order to support integration among racially and linguistically diverse groups of students. The potential of TWI programs to facilitate integration is important because of the many academic, interpersonal, and long-term benefits associated with integrated learning environments.

Research Design

In this qualitative case study, we explore a TWI program that was in its seventh year of implementation at Silverthorne (pseudonym), a rural elementary school in a new immigrant destination. Silverthorne’s student body is 51% White, 30% Latino, 13% Black, and 6% other, and 64% of the school’s students qualify for free-and-reduced priced meals. Silverthorne’s Spanish TWI program is a strand within the larger school.

To gather data, we conducted semi-structured interviews with 12 teachers, one guidance counselor, and one principal. We also observed instruction in eight classrooms and collected relevant material from the school website. Through inductive coding of our interviews, observations, and documents, four central findings emerged that describe how Silverthorne’s educators structure the learning experience in ways that facilitate integration in TWI classrooms.


Four features of Silverthorne’s TWI program shape the ways in which students experience integration:

  • TWI program structure
  • Teachers’ conceptualizations of diversity
  • Teachers’ pedagogical and curricular decisions
  • School leader’s support of integration and TWI

While Silverthorne’s teachers and leaders promote integration in many ways, there are some missed opportunities that could further enhance integration in the TWI program.

TWI Program Structure

The potential for integration in TWI begins with how the program is structured. In each grade level, Silverthorne’s TWI strand program has two classes with a total of 40-50 students. Most students enroll in the TWI program in kindergarten and move up through elementary school with the same group of classmates. This structure allows for sustained and intimate interactions among students from different racial and linguistic groups, resulting in what participants frequently describe as students being “like a family.” These bonds help students develop respect, understanding, and empathy for classmates from different racial and linguistic backgrounds.

Teachers’ Conceptualizations of Diversity

Teachers’ abilities to create integrated environments are often based on how they define diversity. At Silverthorne, teachers emphasize the ways in which students from different racial and linguistic backgrounds are “the same.” In doing so, they often focus on shared experiences, similarities among students, and the harmony that exists among students from different racial and linguistic groups.

While it is important to highlight similarities and build connections based on shared experiences, our participants’ tendency to embrace a colorblind ideology may be overlooking and perpetuating inequities within the TWI program. Despite the overall positive interactions that educators described and we observed, our participants describe some instances in which students are divided along lines of race, socioeconomic status, or language, often during recess and other less structured times of the school day.

Teachers’ Pedagogical and Curricular Decisions

Teachers facilitate integration in TWI classrooms by grouping students heterogeneously, often based on reading level, and using collaborative structures, such as Kagan Structures, for learning. Silverthorne’s counselor, whose son was in the TWI program, explained one important aspect of collaborative learning in the TWI classroom: “They have to partner up to help one another in English or help one another in Spanish.”

Many participants discuss the importance of incorporating different cultures into the curriculum. Unlike our earlier finding in which our participants focused on similarities and shared experiences, Spanish TWI teachers emphasize the importance of distinguishing among different Hispanic cultures, countries, and vocabulary. Most of the examples of intentionally incorporating different cultures into the curriculum occur in the Spanish classrooms while English TWI teachers do not convey a responsibility for doing so in their classrooms. Teachers note that celebratory occasions, such as Hispanic Heritage Month, Black History Month, Día de los Muertos, and Cinco de Mayo, provide opportunities to incorporate students’ backgrounds into the classroom. However, the lack of culturally relevant and sustaining pedagogy in the English TWI classrooms is cause for concern and presents a missed opportunity for furthering integration.

School Leader’s Support of Integration and TWI

The school leader can be helpful in supporting an integrated learning environment. Silverthorne’s principal, who is a Puerto Rican woman and a former Spanish teacher, celebrates diversity and emphasizes global awareness across the school, in TWI and non-TWI classrooms. She acknowledges that celebrating diversity is a starting point for promoting integration and there is much more work to be done. She has worked to diversify the staff and support Spanish TWI teachers with curricular materials, which have historically been in short supply. Many of our participants view her background as beneficial: “Having a principal with a Hispanic background is a huge plus because that pulls the kids in and they get really excited when she says something in Spanish on the intercom.” It allows students to connect with her and see the value of bilingualism in their school’s leader, and she “knows the benefits of teaching Spanish.”

Implications and Recommendations

Many of our findings are consistent with the conditions that enhance the benefits of contact across groups—frequent contact between groups, equal-status interactions, cooperative environments that encourage working toward shared goals, and the support of relevant authorities. Although there are areas that could and should be improved, Silverthorne’s TWI program demonstrates the potential of teachers and leaders in TWI programs to facilitate integration among students from diverse racial and linguistic backgrounds.

To further enhance the ways in which educators facilitate integration in TWI classrooms, we recommend that TWI educators participate in professional development focusing on how to support positive interactions among students from different racial and linguistic backgrounds.

Additional research is needed to understand the ways in which integration is considered, if at all, during the design and implementation of TWI programs. Future research should explore TWI students’ perspectives of integration in their learning experiences. Finally, future research should examine the perspectives of international teachers regarding race and integration in TWI classrooms.

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