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WHEELS Teacher-Leader Callie Lowenstein on Dual Language Schools as Desegregation Tools

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    Sarah Norris

Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS) is an NYC Outward Bound School and an EL Education Mentor School.

Educators, and increasingly the public at large (through the work of journalists like Nikole Hannah-Jones), are aware that school segregation is as bad as it has been since the late 1960s, after a peak of integration through the 1970s-1990s.

While segregation has negative effects on everyone,  teachers of multilingual students have particular insight into the harm done by models that define difference in terms of deficit. Callie Lowenstein, a teacher-leader at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS) in New York City, recounts her journey from supporting new arrivals in a school that considered them only “in need,” to the dual-language program at WHEELS. She writes in The74:

“Dual language programs like ours at WHEELS provide an incredible opportunity to desegregate our schools and empower all of our students to learn from each other.”

Callie Wheels

Photo courtesy Callie Lowenstein

In her early days of teaching, Callie’s students “were told a story of themselves as struggling, less competent learners, while they were doing a task twice as difficult as the rest of their peers — learning to write essays and do geometry in a language they had only recently begun to learn. Imagine having been asked to learn chemistry first in French, or Russian. This is no joke.

Their full cognitive abilities in their own native languages earned only a passing mention in the story of their high school education, where they were reduced to the few words they could string together for the three to five years it takes to acquire academic proficiency in another language.

And their peers, and teachers and tutors like me, were made complicit in this narrative — that Michael and Angel always “needed help” with their work.”

By contrast, at WHEELS and similar dual-language schools, “Spanish is an asset. In a bilingual classroom like ours, however, [a Spanish speaking student] is an authority figure for half the day. Her friends ask her for help with their own work, and she speaks confidently about the topics we are studying. During community meetings, she shares freely and helps to clarify others’ comments for her English-dominant peers.”

Working against systemic educational inequalities requires reflective educators and committed building leaders; we applaud Callie and WHEELS for their ongoing work.

Read Callie’s full article on The74.