A kindergarten teacher uses puppets to tell the tale of “The Three Little Pigs” in Spanish at Carlos Santana Arts Academy in North Hills.

Five-year-old Andre Medellin of North Hills seems to fit what linguists call the “Three Generation Rule,” which says that the third generation of immigrant populations is typically monolingual in the language of the adopted country. Medellin, the grandchild of Mexican immigrants, only speaks English but his mom seems intent on breaking the generational rule.

When Medellin was ready for kindergarten this academic year, Michelle Cannata enrolled him in North Hills’ Carlos Santana Arts Academy, one of a large and growing number of campuses in the LA Unified School District offering Dual Language Education. At the Valley school that bears the name of the Mexican-born legendary rock musician, all students get half of their instruction in English and half in Spanish.

A student uses a laptop for his bilingual classes at Carlos Santana Arts Academy, one of several LAUSD schools with Dual Language Education programs in the Valley.

“Andre likes it,” says Cannata. She hopes learning Spanish will help Medellin to communicate better with his grandparents and other Spanish-speaking relatives and empower him with valuable skills for work in the future.

Those are great reasons for families to enroll their children in schools with Dual Language Education, says academy Principal Barbara Avilez. But for her as an educator, there is one main motive: grades. “It’s a vehicle for academic achievement,” she says, pointing out that students in bilingual programs do better in classes. 

The North Hills school — which offers transitional kinder, kindergarten and first to fifth grade — began to provide a dual language program in 2012. 

On a recent Wednesday, a class of kindergarteners listened to their teacher using Spanish to tell the classic tale of “Los Tres Cerditos” — “The Three Little Pigs.” In other classrooms, students and teachers interacted in English and then in Spanish. Another class featured visiting acting instructors, with all instruction given in English. “We have bilingual teachers in some classes and sometimes we have two teachers in a class, one teaching in English and the other in Spanish,” says Avilez.

The Carlos Santana Arts Academy is not the only campus in the Valley with a dual language program. San Fernando Early Education Center in San Fernando and Telfair Elementary School in Pacoima also offer Spanish. Saticoy Elementary School in North Hollywood teaches Armenian while Korean is taught at Porter Ranch Community School in Porter Ranch. 

Also offered in LAUSD’s dual language programs are Arabic, Filipino, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Russian and American Sign Language.

While technically bilingual, Dual Language Education is not the traditional bilingual program of yesterday, according to Lydia Acosta Stephens, executive director of LAUSD’s Multilingual Multicultural Education Department. Before, bilingual education was a transitional program aimed at helping English-language learners, first teaching them subjects in the students’ mother tongue and gradually easing them into classes in English.

But bilingual education was severely restricted in California in 1998 by Proposition 227, a voter-approved ballot initiative aimed at speedily moving students with limited English proficiency into English-only classes. Prop 227 proved controversial as it arrived in the middle of a heated public political discourse about race, immigration, and poverty — and just three years after the passage of the anti-undocumented immigrant Prop. 187. Most bilingual students were Latino immigrants, receiving instruction in Spanish.

Less than a decade later, bilingual education would regain popularity in a new iteration. Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, introduced the California Multilingual Education Act of 2016, which was then placed on the ballot as Proposition 58 by the state Legislature. Prop. 58 would lift most limits on bilingual education imposed by Prop. 227 while preserving the requirement that public schools ensure students obtain English language proficiency. Furthermore, the proposition authorized school districts to establish dual language immersion programs for both native and non–native English speakers — in other words, for all students. Prop. 58 was overwhelmingly approved by 73.5 percent of Golden State voters.

“That is how bilingual education returned and expanded as California voters saw its benefit and wanted their kids to speak more than one language,” says Cheryl Ortega, director of bilingual education for United Teachers Los Angeles. “Before, bilingual education was a label that some people didn’t like.”

Prop. 58 also required school districts to solicit parent and community input in the development of language acquisition programs. Now parents can help bring language programs to their children’s schools. Ortega says that a minimum of 20 parents can petition a campus to offer a world language of their choice.

Currently, the most popular choice in dual language programs in the LAUSD is Spanish, reflective of the district’s Latino student majority.  

“It’s important that a student’s primary language be seen as an asset,” states Guadalupe Carrasco Cardona of the Association of Raza Educators, an organization that has been advocating for bilingual education for decades. 

At Carlos Santana Arts Academy, Cannata is excited that her son Medellin is studying Spanish. “The only way to really learn another language is to practice it.” Just like her, Cannata hopes her child will be able to help people in Spanish. “The Dual Language Education program is a great way for him to learn another language besides English.”