As soon as my fiancé and I moved to Washington, D.C. in 2008, we started looking at school options. Although children were still a few years off, we wanted to give ourselves plenty of time to research the various schools available to us. The district provides multiple school choices for children starting at age 3, including traditional, charter and private schools, and we were thrilled to learn several dual-language immersion schools were among our choices. As a child who grew up in a military family, I attended school with many bilingual/multilingual children and observed first-hand the advantages they enjoyed of being able to easily communicate in more than one language. Further research into the advantages of dual-language immersion programs strengthened our desire to one day place our children in such a program. We wanted them to have the same opportunities and experience that bilingual-learning provides, including:
Increased cognitive development and abilities;
Improved performance on tasks that call for divergent thinking, pattern recognition and problem solving;
Correlations with higher academic achievement of standardized test measures; and
Language proficiency and intercultural competency skills that can open up employment opportunities they might not otherwise have.
Specialized programs, such as dual-language immersion, are highly sought in the district and demand far exceeds available seats. We had envisioned walking into our chosen school and simply signing up for pre-K-3. The anxiety-inducing annual citywide lottery and potential subsequent waitlists quickly brought us back to reality. Additionally, the multiple preference points awarded to a child based on factors such as living in-boundary, having an older sibling already enrolled at the school, and being a founding board member, forced us to reconsider whether we really had much choice at all. We live in the northeastern rim of the city, but the majority of dual-language schools, traditional public and charter, are located in the district’s northwest area. The waitlists for these schools range from a few hundred to just under 1,000 (Yes, you read that correctly). Our chances of securing a spot for our daughter was limited, and like us, other families in our community wanted the same opportunity for their children. Realistically, our collective chances were slight. Because a growing number of families are deciding to remain in the city after their children reach school age, traditional public schools and charter schools are experiencing increases in enrollments.
Starting With Our Neighborhood School
It was clear our home address was determining what opportunities were available to us, and, sadly, they were very few. We didn’t have the expertise to open a charter school and couldn’t wait on a charter school operator to decide on opening a new school near or in our neighborhood. We knew our best option was to approach the principal at our own neighborhood school and propose the idea of starting a dual-language immersion program. We were among the lucky ones. Our principal is a visionary who wants children to have an education that sparks joy, creativity and expands opportunity. The next step was getting approval and support from the mayor and school chancellor. Our neighborhood school, Charles H. Houston Elementary School, is a hidden jewel with a student population not typically associated with dual-language immersion programs. It is a Title I school with a majority African-American student population. We needed and sought support from many stakeholders across the city to get the attention and consideration our proposal required. Our success was a direct result of varied supporters, i.e. parents/guardians, neighborhood civic group leaders, education activists, etc., voicing the same demand and rational to the decision makers. The first class of pre-K-3 Spanish/English dual-language immersion learners started this school year starting and I am proud to say our daughter is among that curious group of future leaders. The program will grow each year through the fifth grade. It was during this grassroots effort when I met my other future co-founders for
DC Language Immersion Project. We realized we were individually working on the same goal to increase academic achievement via dual-language immersion programs and were more effective if we banded together. As an organization, we work to connect the research and education sectors, and business community in creating the roadmap for a linguistically and culturally competent future workforce. My first leading step was voicing the inequity in access for my community. The next step was advocating for the establishment of a program at my neighborhood school. I continue stepping out, amplifying my voice and leading with language through the DC Language Immersion Project. I support advocacy efforts such as the
Lead with Languages campaign, because it works to ensure children like our daughter, Layla, learn and live globally.
Jimell Sanders is a federal employee by day and a force for civic good the rest of the time. She currently works as a health systems specialist for the Department of Defense and has over 15 years of experience in the fields of healthcare and clinical research. She received her bachelors in anthropology from Emory University and a master’s in business administration from Ashford University.