Americans get a bad rap for speaking only English.
But increasingly, public schools are immersing students in a second language, usually Spanish or Chinese. The Highline school district, south of Seattle, has even set an ambitious goal for the class of 2026 to graduate fully bilingual and biliterate.
Those are today’s first-graders, and they’re already under the microscope. In Corie Geballe’s first-grade class at White Center Heights Elementary, the students are either English or Spanish native speakers.
In her classroom, Geballe points to a picture of a snail. And la cola, the tail. Her students gather on the rug in front of her.
“Repite esa palabra,” she says. Repeat the word. “Estanque.”
“Estanque,” they say, using the Spanish word for pond.
The students split their school day between English and Spanish instruction. Often, Spanglish slips through.
“Es como un river?” a student asks.
Other students answer in English, or tell the teacher they don’t understand. Señora Geballe reminds them, “En español, en español.” In Spanish, she says, as she encourages the kids to help each other with the lesson.
So far, Highline offers Spanish or Vietnamese immersion programs at some neighborhood schools throughout the district.
Bernard Koontz, who directs the language learning program for Highline public schools, says the classes will expand every year, to more grades and more students. But it’s limited to select schools and languages.
“We know that if we do a good job with dual language implementation, we might hit three or four languages,” he says. “But our students speak over 100 different languages.”
Highline hopes to eventually tap into that language diversity. The district wants students to gain more literacy in their native language, whether it’s Somali or Ukrainian.
Koontz says the district has started offering programs for smaller groups of families, and is exploring more options with community partners or online.
Families could opt out of the whole bilingual program, he says. But few have chosen to leave.
One of the biggest challenges for dual language programs at Highline, and elsewhere, is to find more teachers.
“Recruiting bilingual teachers is a major effort of our HR department,” Koontz says. “We recruit early and work a lot with candidates to get them here to Highline.”
Demand is high. And this year, the district even turned to the federal J-1 visa program to temporarily bring in some teachers from Spain. Schools around the country have also increasingly turned to this exchange program to find bilingual instructors.
About a dozen school districts out of nearly 300 in Washington state offer a dual language program, some much smaller than others. A bill in the Washington legislature this year aimed to provide funding to expand these programs and teacher training, but it failed reach a floor vote among lawmakers grid-locked in budget negotiations.
In the Spanish classroom at White Center Heights Elementary, the first graders work on an aquarium project with their language buddies. They’re paired up so a native Spanish speaker can help out a native English speaker, and vice versa.
Teacher Erin Saffold, who has taught here for eight years, says it creates a great classroom dynamic.
“We’re teaching things about their world at home, which I think is making them so proud and want to share more than ever in past,” Saffold says.
But will this class of 2026 will succeed in graduating bilingual?
As long as there’s consistency, yes, Saffold says. But she also worries about teacher shortage.
“I think for incoming teachers they’re like, ‘No, thank you,’” she says.
“We have had many, in the past two years, student teachers who have taught in the dual language program who really don’t want any part of it.”
When asked why Saffold wants to be a part of this effort, her emotion seems to catch her off guard.
“For me … I don’t know why I’m tearing up,” she says.
Many of Highline’s students come from low-income families where another language is spoken in the home. Saffold already sees how this bilingual focus helps her students engage in class and to see their language ability as something special.
“You see it with Amani, and you see it with Josiah, and you see these kids that are just given an opportunity that they haven’t been given before,” she says, wiping away tears. “To have them be given something that will help them later on just blows me away. So, I’m really proud to be a part of it.”
Early results with these first graders are impressive – even according to them.
“This is Lucas,” says a first-grader, introducing his friend. “A long time ago in kindergarten, he used to not know Spanish.”
“Yeah, I learned a lot more,” Lucas says.
Another student agrees that Lucas has improved: “Yeah, he’s saying a lot of words and compound words in Spanish.”
The kids are all smiles and giggles. If it’s more work to become bilingual, they don’t seem to notice.