The Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District examined its multilingual programs and explored learning models to support world languages at its secondary schools at a June 19 board meeting.

In the presentation, multiple staff members from across the district presented positive outcomes they’ve witnessed from the multilingual program experience in their classrooms.

Lori Orum, principal of Edison Language Academy, detailed a program she used in which about half of her students speak English at home while about half speak Spanish at home, bringing both together in a collaborative environment to better learn each other’s language and culture.

“Students talk among themselves, together, so they learn from each other as well as the teacher,” Orum said. Orum says this helps in a multitude of ways, exposing students to “the real world,” working with different people from different walks of life. Furthermore, students can act as a failsafe of sorts. “I may not be able to catch something you said wrong, but a native speaker will.”

Steve Richardson, principal of John Adams High School, detailed success of multilingual programs at his school site, lauding the benefits of starting students with a new language from an early age and seeing those skills transfer through middle school and hopefully, on to high school. He also showed how multilingual programs integrate humanities courses at his school site.

Dr. Amy Teplin and Dr. Claudia Bautista-Nichols demonstrated how the multilingual programs also tie into the districts social justice standards. They noted that in 5th grade, they want students to be able to “stand up and speak when they see injustice”; in 8th, “students become change agents and recognize injustice in their broader communities”; and in 12th, “students view themselves as activists, recognize injustice locally and globally and speak up and inspire others.”

Bautista-Nichols said the program should have students speaking Spanish at a high-level. And if not that, at least have students speaking enough of the language for the important stuff.

“You shouldn’t be done in two years with Spanish and not be able to order a burrito,” she said to laughs.

Aside from program proficiency at school sites, a common problem both elementary and secondary sites seemed to face was recruitment of staff, particularly the amount of staff and staff that are proficient and possibly native speakers of the languages being taught. Other challenges included a “dearth” of materials to teach with at the secondary level and a desire for an expansion of language options.

Another challenge facing the multilingual programs is bandwidth; it was noted that 410 students across the district are already accessing Spanish at the “speaker level”, with over 1,000 students looking to take a Spanish language class additionally.

“How we find room for this?” Board VP Jon Kean asked. “It’s a recurring question. Maybe the problem is what we have structured as the academic day. We need to tie in the role of world language into our grads and the knowledge base and emotional skills that come with that. the other thing is if we accelerate world languages early on, other languages are that much easier. Until we embrace the struggle of how to open our day, this is all pie in the sky. But I’m excited to work on this.”

Board member Oscar de la Torre discussed his bilingual upbringing, adding that “these days, I don’t know how you get by knowing only one language.” He lauded the programs thus far and advocated for home growing multilingual teachers within the district, offering incentives, scholarships, and training to attract or keep education talent in a city with rising housing costs.

Board president Dr. Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein encourage staff to come back to the board with more details on how to maintain the programs and enrich them.

“We don’t want staff to stretch so far they can’t deliver. The sequencing, coming up with long term plans … being strategic is important. We want to do big things but also not set us up for failure, let’s not harm anything we’re doing well right now.” He further echoed Kean’s point of getting creative with the traditional school day, saying students should have a hand in crafting their school day or exploring other options such as block schedules or a “European style” of teaching.

The lone public speaker was Dr. Berenice Onofre, a champion for Latino representation in the community.

“I’m very excited for this movement, the expansion of bilingual education. It’s so exciting to hear that this is happening here in our district.”