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In the United States, the historical approach to serving bilingual and multilingual students is deficit-based. 

School systems categorize bi- and multilingual students as "English Learners" (or ELs), focusing not on the many languages that students know, but on the one that they are learning. This deficit-based approach translates to schools and classrooms where these learners are viewed as “struggling students” who must assimilate and course correct. Instead, our school systems should recognize the need to adopt changes in mindset and pedagogy that build upon multilingual students’ strengths and support them in achieving high academic outcomes.

The Puget Sound region of Washington state is diverse. More than 207 languages are spoken within 35 school districts and seven public charter schools. Despite the cultural and linguistic strengths of the region, data reveal grossly unequal outcomes for students categorized as ELs with only three of five graduating from high school. The risk of not completing high school is even higher among students who stay longer in the state’s language support services.

Designing a new approach for bi- and multilingual students

In August 2020, the Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD) team and Shift partnered to design The Multilingual Learners Network to be piloted in the Puget Sound region in the coming 2021-22 school year.

Shift’s Inclusive Design Intensive supported the network design. This intensive guides organizations as they plan an improvement network with representatives from the community they aim to support. This inclusive approach centers different perspectives to see the collective whole and allows participants to co-create improvement networks that transform systems, preventing the inequities in power and decision-making that traditional systems often reinforce.

PSESD recruited an inclusive design team of teachers, multilingual specialists, school principals, measurement experts, equity experts, and parents and students in multilingual families. Shift and PSESD guided this team through six meetings that spanned several months and culminated in the co-creation of the Multilingual Learners Network (MLL). 

Focusing on Strengths

The MLL Network aims to develop English language proficiency among bi- and multilingual students to ensure their success in U.S. schools. To do this, they will make changes to English language instruction to ensure that it affirms and leverages students’ knowledge of their home languages.

But the design did not stop there; the MLL Network also intends to change the broader educational system in which these students learn. MLL’s second and interconnected aim is to build a larger school environment that affirms non-English languages and diverse identities and cultures. To do this, they are building inclusive school spaces that do not assume dominant culture norms like monolingualism, and creating authentic partnerships between schools, families, and communities. These two mutually reinforcing aims will benefit bi- and multilingual students and also increase the opportunity for monolingual students and staff to value the richness of their communities’ multicultural experiences. 

Over time, this form of strengths-based learning environment helps students—no matter their home language—learn to value people with different experiences. PSESD is working to create environments in our schools which go beyond inclusion towards “centering multilingualism” which in turn will support true equity in education.

This blog was co-created with the Puget Sound Educational Service District team: Karina Vanderbilt, Adam Kay and Anthony Brown, and Shift: Cori Davis, Shay Bluemer Miroite, and Karen Zeribi.

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