Joseph Wiemelt is the director of equity and student learning and bilingual and multicultural programs, at Urbana School District 116.

It is no secret that public school student demographics continue to change. Specifically, projections show that African American and Latina/o children will represent 44 percent of the PreK to 12 school population by 2024, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. As student enrollment trends become more racially and linguistically diverse, school districts across the country are charged with the responsibility of serving all students in culturally and linguistically responsive ways.

Many urban schools have been implementing various forms of bilingual education for decades. However, in this decade, in suburban, rural, and small towns across America, student populations are changing. Districts are struggling to mirror this change. School districts in new-growth communities must initiate new educational programming, often times requiring cultural, political, and ideological shifts in curriculum, instruction, and assessment to ensure that all students are provided equitable opportunities to succeed.

One central Illinois school district has committed to serving its new-growth community of linguistically diverse Latina/o families in an integrated manner with students across all racial, linguistic, and socioeconomic groups. Urbana School District 116 stepped up to this opportunity in bold and innovative ways. Demographically, USD 116 has seen a major increase in Latina/o student enrollment over the past decade: in 2001, 2.5 percent of students identified as Latina/o. In 2012, it grew to 10.5 percent. Today in 2015, the population is over 12 percent and continuing to grow. Additionally, the number of students across the district who are identified as English Language Learners according to federal and state regulations is approximately 10-12 percent every year.

Over the past decade, USD 116 administrators and the board of education have considered a variety of programmatic options, including traditional English as a Second Language programming, transitional bilingual education, as well as dual language immersion programming. It wasn’t until 2012 that the district decided the time was right to make the move to dual language immersion, the best educational model based on program evaluation research for English Language Learners.

In the winter of 2012, the Urbana board voted 7-0 in favor of beginning a dual language immersion program in the 2012-2013 school year. Dual language immersion is a bilingual education program that integrates native Spanish-speaking students with native English-speaking students for instruction in and through those two languages. The program includes two groups in each classroom, with approximately equal numbers of native English and native Spanish speakers. Students spend part of the school day learning in their native language, and part of the day learning in their non-native language.

Students in dual language programs develop high levels of proficiency in their two languages. The benefits of balanced bilingualism allow for creativity and problem solving, greater cross-cultural understanding, and marketability for future college and career goals in a bilingual and multilingual society. The schools where the dual language programs are located are Leal Elementary School and the recently renamed Dr. Preston L. Williams Jr. Elementary School. The program will follow the students in the dual language classes through fifth grade to create dual language for K-5 by 2016-2017.

USD 116 intentionally chose these two schools to ensure that students across racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, based on the student demographics at each school, had equal access and opportunities to study in the dual language programs. Therefore, USD 116 has similar numbers of African-American, multiracial, and white students who make up the native English-speaking portion of the classrooms; Latina/o youth and Spanish-speaking youth make up the other half. Although studies are limited, available research indicates that students across all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds can and do benefit from dual language programs. For example, in a statewide evaluation of North Carolina’s dual language programs, researchers Wayne P. Thomas and Virginia P. Collier found that the academic performance of African-American and Latino students enrolled in dual language programs was better than a cohort not enrolled in DL programs.

Three-Year Results

After three full years of implementation, USD 116 has already seen great success in meeting the bold goals of dual language immersion for all students who participate in the program. USD 116 is seeing the following trends across the dual language programs:

  • Dual language students of all racial, ethnic, and linguistic backgrounds outperform, on average, their USD 116 peers who are studying in English only.
  • All dual language students are acquiring English and Spanish across the four language domains of listening, speaking, reading, and writing.
  • According to Spanish assessments, the average percentile ranks have consistently been well above the national average of native Spanish speakers.
  • While we do see varying levels of oral language fluency in both languages based on the student native languages, we are not seeing achievement differences or gaps across racial, ethnic, and linguistic groups of students.
  • Dual language students are interacting and developing cross-cultural and cross-linguistic relationships like we have never seen before. Because the programs integrate students through language instruction in two languages and with a focus on multiculturalism, students and families are developing friendships and relationships that didn’t exist across racial lines before.

Moving forward, USD 116 is committed to seeing the program develop up the grade levels. In the future, the district plans to extend the program into middle school and high school. USD 116 is excited to see students develop their bilingualism, biliteracy, academic achievement, and multiculturalism as they matriculate to graduation from Urbana High School.

To learn more about USD 116 and the program, please visit: