Some California Preschools Serve Young English Learners Well, But It's Tough

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Isaac and Santiago say they prefer to speak to each other in English at school. But most of the students at De Colores speak in Spanish. (Devin Katayama/KQED)

The 3- and 4-year-olds in Amapola Beenn’s class in East Oakland looked out the window this spring and saw butterflies. They were curious. So Beenn went shopping, bought some monarch eggs and hatched them at school.

“We wanted to create the whole experience in the classroom,” she said.

For her students, Beenn said, it’s important to have this visual, hands-on and, most importantly, bilingual experience, because her preschool, De Colores, is located in the part of Oakland with the highest concentration of English learners.

“This area especially is a melting pot,” she said.

California is a melting pot, itself. Half of preschool-aged children live in families where English is not the first language. Most are Spanish speaking, though scores of other languages are spoken as well.


In the state's public school system, English-language learners make up more than 20 percent of kindergarten-through-high school students. And, as KQED reported,  many of these students will likely end up in the category of "long-term English learners."

The California Department of Education now gives extra money to public school districts with more English learners, but that hasn’t been the case for preschool programs -- not even those with state subsidies.

One thing the Department of Education is doing: This summer, for the first time, it's adding a chapter to its preschool guidelines describing how to best support youngsters simultaneously learning English and their home language. But there’s no guarantee these guidelines will be used, and there is not a lot of extra money to help preschools implement them.

“We had at least a billion dollars more in early childhood [funding] prior to the recession,” said Cecilia Fisher-Dahms, who works in the California Department of Education and has focused on young, dual-language learners.

The state has restored some of its early-childhood education funding, but it could be a while before it gets back to where it used to be, said Fisher-Dahms. Even then, child advocates say, it's not enough.

Meanwhile, English learners in California drop out at a higher rate than almost any other group of students. That's why Fisher-Dahms is working on giving them a better start. She points to research by Nobel laureate and University of Chicago professor James Heckman, which suggests good early-childhood programs can improve social and economic outcomes for low-income students.

“It’s really going to pay off in terms of state dividends,” said Fisher-Dahms.

But for dual-language learners, good preschool programs are still being figured out, said Soodie Ansari with the San Mateo County Office of Education.

“Often times [in education] we have principles, we have philosophies,” she said. “And then the next step is, what does it look like on the ground? What does it actually look like in the classroom?”

The state’s new guidelines are another step in the right direction, but there's still more to be done, said Ansari. Preschools need to offer better pay to attract more qualified teachers, she said. And those teachers need paid time to assess how well the children are developing their skills, something afforded to K-12 teachers.

“We don’t really have the time to sit together as a team and think about, 'OK, these are the results in the classroom. This is the profile of the children in our classroom. How are we going to address their needs?'"

Right now, it will fall to individual preschools to decide whether or how to use the state guidelines for dual-language learners, she said.

There’s no funded mandate despite having strong research that supports programs like De Colores, where Amapola Beenn works.

Amapola Beenn reads to her students in Spanish. Later another teacher will read to the group in English.
Amapola Beenn reads to her students in Spanish. Later another teacher will read to the group in English. (Devin Katayama/KQED)

It's a Head Start program run through The Unity Council, and it receives most of its funding from the federal government, but state dollars -- as well as foundation grants -- also chip in to help serve low-income children.

Beenn said she is lucky to get paid time to plan lessons, and she receives certain professional development that’s not granted to most state-subsidized preschool educators. But her largest supporter has been the Unity Council itself, which gave her time to go back to graduate school, she said.

“The first thing I did when I came here was go back to school to get a masters [degree] in early childhood, which I didn’t have.”

Now she leads a dual-language program, where children hear Spanish and English throughout the day from two different teachers. The kids sit in a circle and sing songs and listen to stories in both languages.

The families of the children are also served here. Adults can hone their English skills and get parenting advice, and the school has even offered classes for those with alcohol dependency, said Beenn.

When the state releases its new guidelines this summer, they will be backed by current research, which says this type of bilingual program is on the right track. The program supports families and supports the home language, while a child also learns English. This builds the foundation for how language and concepts work, said Beenn.

“There are windows in your brain that open up," she said. "The more you speak, the more you acquire information for anything. Not just language."

And it’s not just Spanish. There are many other languages her students speak, like Farsi and Mam, and in order to succeed in a global society, it’s important that her students don’t lose their languages, she said.

“When you lose la raiz, the root of who you are, the core of who we are, we lose our identity," she said.

Bilingual preschool helps establish that identity, to serve kids as they grow, said Beenn.