Serving More Communities in New Ways: Dual Language Models at BES

Community-driven schools. High-Quality Schools. Public Schools.

Supporting leaders to found and lead community-driven, high-quality public schools is the focus of BES’s 2020-2023 strategic plan. One way that we will do this is by supporting leaders to found autonomous, in-district dual language school models.

In 2019, BES embarked on a pilot with the Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership (SEZP) to design and launch high-autonomy in-district schools. 

BES’s first Fellow-founded school in SEZP is a dual language school, led by 2019 Fellow Robert Acosta. Once an emerging bilingual student himself, Robert designed and founded Springfield Lyceum College Preparatory (SLCP), a dual language, in-district autonomous school that opened in fall 2020, serving approximately 380 students in grades 6-8. In Springfield, 68% of students are Latinx, making the dual language model all the more essential to equitably serving these emerging bilingual students. 

Why dual language? “The main benefit is the ability to participate and engage in lessons in the students’ native language, allowing them to learn new content and engage with academic standards at a higher intellectual level,” Robert says. “Removing language as an obstacle to accessing classroom learning allows students to keep up with their grade-level peers. Meanwhile, the ‘second language’ (English) acquisition courses focus on the language instruction. By separating content instruction from language instruction, we are reducing the burden and difficulties of learning a second language.”

Nearly ten percent (4.9 million) of students enrolled in public K-12 schools across the country were English learners as of the 2016-17 school year, an increase of one million students since 2000. Research has shown that continuing to educate these students in their primary language is the most powerful predictor of closing their achievement gaps in their second language. 

SLCP is a two-way dual language school model, where all students’ classes are in both Spanish and English.

“One of my biggest takeaways from year one has been the surprising number of LatinX students who are English speakers and are struggling academically as a result of literacy gaps unrelated to language gaps,” says Robert. “Meanwhile, many of these students end up in special education programs because the region lacks bilingual education experts who can adequately identify, diagnose, and serve these students. Our model can help these students through a culturally responsive literacy approach that helps students increase their self-esteem as they see educators and leaders who look and speak like their families and as they engage in content learning that reflects their cultural background and heritage.”

Knowing how unique of an opportunity the autonomous school model is, BES works with Empower Schools, a design and launch partner for empowerment zones that catalyzes innovation by empowering educators and creating conditions such that zone educators can make important decisions about budget, curriculum, schedule, talent, and culture to better serve students. In the next phase of our partnership, BES and Empower Schools are looking to serve even more students specifically through dual language school models. Our shared objective is to partner with districts interested in creating and/or further leveraging an autonomous structure for dual language schools to operate in.

“BES believes wholeheartedly in supporting emerging bilingual learners through strengths-based approaches and celebrating their identities and cultures,” says BES CEO Aasimah Navlakhi. “When we say all students deserve access to an excellent education in this country, we mean all students.” 

One challenge that we seek to address is the disconnect between what the community needs and desires in a school and the types of school models that are available to students and families. Springfield Lyceum College Preparatory offers an example of how our partnership is committed to overcoming this challenge. When BES was cultivating potential Fellows for Springfield, we prioritized identifying leaders like Robert Acosta who were committed to and experienced in supporting emerging bilinguals. 

What further support is needed to make more dual language schools available to the students and communities who need them? Robert suggests, “In order for the dual language model to be successful and sustainable, there must be bilingual leaders in positions of influence and power who understand the model. When the voices of those whom we want to serve are not represented in the decision-making rooms, decisions are often made that are not representative of the wishes nor in fulfillment of the needs of the unrepresented communities.”

Together with Empower Schools, we are particularly interested in supporting leaders to design and found dual language schools, knowing the transformational impact such a school can have on an emerging bilingual student’s life trajectory. We also share a firm belief in the need for diverse, strong and effective school leaders who have the autonomy to design and lead a school that puts the needs of the community first.

In-district autonomous schools are a promising opportunity to provide students and families with a unique, locally responsive school that improves student outcomes, while simultaneously fostering a culture of collaboration and trust within the district. But without the right conditions in place or the right leader at the helm, we risk squandering the opportunity to learn what is possible in this “third way” of education. BES and Empower Schools are excited to build on the momentum of our pilot partnership and we invite interested districts to join us on this important journey.


Click here to read more about Springfield Lyceum College Prep.

1 Schools in SEZP, like those in similar Empowerment or Innovation Zones across the country, are unique in that they benefit from flexibility in state and local laws to exercise autonomies that public charter schools typically have, while still participating in and benefiting from many of the shared services of the surrounding school district. To learn more about autonomous schools, their governance structure, and why they are sustainable paths to education equity, check out this resource from Bellwether Education Partners.