Eight years on, PPS’s DLI program continues to bridge language gaps

November, 2023
Daniel GuoMatias Da CostaLeila GuittonElif Cam

This year, Princeton High School welcomed the first cohort of Princeton Middle School students who took part in the Community Park Elementary School’s Dual Language Immersion program. Having been recognized as a model program for Spanish Dual Language Immersion by the New Jersey Department of Education, CP’s full DLI program engages students in the Spanish culture and language from a young age with half of the core instruction taught in English and the other half taught in Spanish. While this program has gained much praise since its inception in 2015, it has also been met with some criticism, as it provokes the more general issue of overcrowding in the other elementary schools in the school district.

With over 1,000 new housing units projected to be completed in Princeton by 2026 resulting in consistent growth in enrollment, expansion has always been a discussed topic in the community. In recent years, concerns have been raised by many parents, especially those whose children must be rerouted around the unfilled CP elementary school that is currently exclusively for students in the DLI program.

“DLI has become an issue [as] … it's not popular enough to consistently fill a whole school. If you don't want to do DLI, you have to go to another school. So we’re busing kids all over the place. kids that would walk to CP, we're busing them to Johnson Park,” Bouldin said.

Sharing the same view as Bouldin is District Supervisor of World Languages Priscilla Russell, who explains that while CP is indeed experiencing a lack of students in the DLI program, the district’s other elementary schools are not overcrowded, but full.

“We need to be careful — [the other schools] are full, but they're not overcrowded,” said Russell. “[CP] does have some empty classrooms … but our goal had always been to create a dual language immersion school, which we were doing pretty well until the pandemic hit and changed just a whole lot of things.”

CP Principal Dineen Gruchacz further describes the hindering factors brought by the pandemic, detailing how they have contributed to a lower-than-expected number of students in the DLI program.

“[During the pandemic], lots of people shied away from anything different than a very basic education program,” said Gruchacz. “The recovery time to build back the numbers in the [classrooms] … is definitely something that needs to be addressed.”

A DLI program at CP was first proposed in 2013 with the hopes of strengthening bilingual and multicultural learning in the district by taking advantage of Princeton’s extensive diversity. Rather than supplementing English classes with a single world language class, the DLI’s aim was to create a more holistic approach to language and culture, immersing students by teaching half of their subjects in Spanish instead of English.

DLI programs have become increasingly popular across the country in recent years due to the cognitive benefits associated with learning more than one language from a younger age and in response to the undervaluation of foreign languages in English-speaking countries. In fact, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the universality of English is one of the main reasons why English is the most commonly taught language worldwide by a factor of 20, a discrepancy that DLI programs hope to address.

“Princeton is not a huge town, but it's a town [made up] of really diverse community members and perspectives … [and] a large international community,” said Kimberley Tew, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction. “We want to make sure that we're honoring that being bilingual and biliterate is a superpower … in an increasingly globalized world. [That] is the goal of the program, not just to develop [linguistic] skills, but to develop cultural competency.”

Along with welcoming DLI program alums at PHS for the first time, the district has extended the DLI program past the elementary and middle school levels by introducing a new horticulture class tailored to teach basic biology principles in Spanish, taught by science and research teacher Mark Eastburn. Eastburn, who is fluent in both Spanish and English, reflects on the tremendous positive impacts that learning a new language can have on a child’s cognitive abilities and consequently believes that many more people should be signing up for the program.

“I remember, many years ago, the evidence being overwhelmingly strong that dual language immersion programs are a way of supercharging childrens’ brains,” said Eastburn. “The evidence has only gotten better over time, and why we can’t get more people to sign up in a community which truly cares about education is baffling to me.”

While the district does offer Spanish classes in the traditional route in all the other elementary schools, many parents believe that language education in the traditional method of language learning is not sufficient for students to gain fluency, leading them to choose DLI. Nicole Pezold, a current CP parent, believes that foreign language education is not prioritized in the traditional curriculum.

“I think it’s kind of an American approach to learning foreign languages to just not prioritize them at all. And I think that our schools in Princeton are trying to prioritize it way more than schools elsewhere in the nation, but we still are approaching it from an old perspective of language learning. I think immersion is the future, or one potential road for the future of language learning for people who really think that that's an important part of a rounded education,” Pezold said.

Some parents who compare the immersive education of their children to their own experiences with the traditional method point out the effectiveness of DLI over the traditional method. Georgette Stern, who currently has three kids enrolled in the DLI program, shares her satisfaction with her kids’ improvement in the language.

“My husband and I both took Spanish throughout middle and high school, but you don't get the same level. I often speak to [my kids] in broken Spanish and … it’s great to see the level of comprehension,” said Stern. “It’s an amazing opportunity to be able to have your kids hear another language for half of their day, and also get core instruction in those languages.”

In addition to offering enhanced opportunities for students who may not speak a second language at home to become bilingual, the DLI program intends to aid the large Spanish-speaking population in Princeton by helping them strengthen their bilingual skills and learn about their heritage more deeply.

“One of the original goals of the program was to close the opportunity gap,” said Tew. “A lot of times when students move to the school district or move to America, they lose some of the foundational skills and pieces in their heritage languages … so we [are] targeting our [Spanish speaking] multilingual learners so that they can strengthen their knowledge base in both languages.”

Olu Ogunyankin, a CP parent and a native of Guatemala, shared that the main reason her family chose to move to Princeton from South Brunswick was for the DLI program.

“[Before starting at CP], even though we speak Spanish at home, [my son] would reply in English because he was in a Pre-K where they just spoke English. And [although] it’s been two months since the classes started in kindergarten, I see a huge difference in the amount of Spanish that he uses at home. He’s giving me sentences in Spanish, he’s replying in Spanish, and soon he’s gonna write in that language too,” Ogunyankin said.

The program is intended to help both native Spanish speakers and the already multicultural and multilingual families in Princeton who may not speak Spanish but want their children to continue learning in different languages.

“We're targeting any family or child who believes in multiculturalism, biliteracy, and bilingualism. We have a lot of families who don't speak Spanish at home, but they might already be a trilingual or bilingual family, and they want their child to have that experience in school as well,” Tew said.

PHS freshmen who took part in the first cohort of the DLI program highly recommend it for incoming elementary students at CP, finding that in addition to learning a new language from a younger age, the cultural immersion provided by the program has given them a different perspective of the world around them.

“I feel like you're connected to a different culture. You're more immersed [and] you have a better ability to understand things around the world because you get to know people who were specifically part of that culture,” said Charles Baglio ’27, a member of the first DLI cohort. “[CP] did it really well … and it'’ an experience that you’ll take with you for the rest of your life.”

For the parents who aren’t considering the DLI program, Milania Kapoor ’27, another freshman who participated in the DLI program, recommends that parents try the program for their children before they make a decision, expressing that the program will provide profound benefits.

“I would say try it because you can always switch out of it … and ask to go to a different school,” said Kapoor. “It was an incredible experience for me. Not only are you learning a language but it's just a different experience … because you learn math in Spanish, you learn science in Spanish, … and you [become] so smart as a young kid.”

With a growing Spanish-speaking population in the United States and an increasingly globalized world, learning a second language will become an important skill for future generations. How Princeton schools will balance an immersion program and potential overcrowding issues, however, may require compromise.

“It's a matter of everyone getting along and understanding each other better, and then building those bridges to actually move everyone forward as a society, which Princeton has the opportunity to do,” said Eastburn. “We really need to hammer that home to the public, because [an immersion program is] such a unique and important thing that we can offer as a district.”