In summary

California’s Dual Language Learners are at particular risk of falling behind. But, this is not inevitable if we take action now.

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By Patricia Lozano, Special to CalMatters

Patricia Lozano is the executive director of Early Edge California and an adviser to All Together Now, a statewide campaign to prioritize children in policy and budget decisions,

Lea este artículo en español. 

Where have all the kindergarteners gone? 

Enrollment is down across the Golden State, with as many as 600,000 families opting out of online kindergarten. And with more than half of California’s children under age 6 speaking a language other than English at home, our Dual Language Learners are at particular risk of falling behind. But, this is not inevitable if we take action now.

This crisis spotlights the most urgent needs and where getting the right supports in place will do the most good. 

So, here’s why California must flip the script.

Cutting edge neuroscience clearly documents the benefits of bilingualism for children. For infants and toddlers, exposure to multiple languages actually wires the brain for the kind of skills we will need most in our global world. So-called “bilingual brains” are more flexible, with greater problem-solving ability and executive function – in other words, a stronger ability to learn.

In addition to cultural, personal and familial benefits, supporting multilingual skills early in pre-K and kindergarten is an investment that pays immediate and long-term returns for California. Immediately, multilingual skills reduce the achievement gap, prepare younger kids for kindergarten and stimulate learning. Long term, Dual Language Learners have better analytical skills and future work opportunities.

When Dual Language Learners get the support they need in English and their home language, monolingual children benefit, too. Observing peers’ experiences cultivates understanding and teaches appreciation for others’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds – exactly the attitudes we need as our nation reckons with systemic racism and its long history of intolerance. Meanwhile, teachers with the skills and tools to reach all students benefit from better classroom management, fewer behavioral issues and more tailored instruction – allowing each child the chance to reach their full potential.

So, as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, we need a plan for Dual Language Learners’ immediate future and for when the virus is under control. New research highlights the urgency of action, finding 81% of California’s Dual Language Learners are no longer receiving care at the programs in which they were enrolled in March 2020, compared with 73% of non-Dual Language Learners. 

Right now, we must focus on making sure children in dual language households have the supports they need to learn at home. This means addressing the digital divide families face by ensuring they have access to technology and connectivity – and the skills to use them. Families need resources, like readings and activities, to support their kids’ learning in their home language as well as English. We can also use this time to make sure teachers get the professional development they need to support learners from other language backgrounds.

As California’s students slowly return to school, we must prioritize Dual Language Learners as some of the children who need the most support. With administrators readying school buildings for students’ safe return, California should follow the example of other districts across the country by allowing Dual Language Learners and children with special needs to return first, knowing that distance learning presents a disproportionate challenge for them.

Finally, once kids are fully back to school, we must not lose the momentum we’ve gained by focusing on Dual Language Learners’ immediate and long-term potential. This means protecting existing funds for supporting Dual Language Learners – and making increased investments. It means continuing and expanding professional development for teachers to ensure curricula support Dual Language Learners’ learning in their home language and reap the full benefits of multilingualism in the classroom. And, it means ensuring our state is investing in evaluating all children’s kindergarten readiness to pinpoint where extra help is needed most.

At the end of the day, California’s future success depends on all children being able to reach their full potential. When three in five kindergartners speak another language at home, this is not about someone else’s kids – it’s about all of our children’s chances to grow and thrive. Making that happen today will strengthen California’s tomorrow: for them and for all of us.

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