Community Leaders Join Santa Barbara Unified School District in Developing Plan for Multilingual Pathways


Community Members Meeting on Plan for Multilingualism

Santa Barbara school officials have taken to heart the call to action from state education leaders to join them on the road to a multilingual California. 

The Global California 2030 initiative challenges state schools to develop opportunities for students to acquire multiple languages that will prepare them for the 21st century economy, broaden their perspective and understanding of the world, and strengthen the diversity of backgrounds and languages that make California’s culture and economy vibrant and dynamic.

Santa Barbara Unified School District leaders have assembled a group of community members, parents, educators and other stakeholders to develop a Comprehensive Plan for Multilingual Pathways. The goal is to create offerings around multi-language acquisition programs districtwide for all students, as well as to strengthen existing programs for English learners in a way that respects and reinforces the cultural and linguistic resources they bring to the classroom.

The initiative was authored by former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and is now supported by Tony Thurmond,  who was elected to the post in 2018. Thurmond, who was in Santa Barbara recently to speak to local schools administrators, said he is particularly interested in dual language immersion models.

“We are working on getting more funding so we can recruit more bilingual educators and do more training and more professional development,” Thurmond said following a brief visit to San Marcos High School.

Santa Barbara Unified School District Superintendent Cary Matsuoka is a strong advocate of the initiative. Matsuoka said as the world becomes increasingly interconnected, students with world language and cultural fluency will be better equipped to succeed in a diverse 21st century economy. “This is our opportunity to lead Santa Barbara toward connecting to the larger ecosystem in education and in the world.”

The local plan will be developed over the next several months and will include input from educators, school board members, parents, business leaders and other stakeholders. The group will explore a variety of options, including a dual language immersion model, expanded world language course offerings, and a revamping of the district’s English Language Learner program. The plan will go before the school board for review and approval.

“There is a moral imperative to ensure that our schools are responsive to all students in the  community,” said Santa Barbara Unified Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Education Raul Ramirez. “Historically, our emergent multilingual students have not achieved at levels that have allowed them to enter fully prepared into the world of higher education and work.  Our district now has the unique opportunity to understand how to receive our students.”   

Maria Larios-Horton, director of English Learner and Parent Engagement Programs, said the research is clear that speaking two or more languages has many benefits, and that honoring a child’s first language is critical to their educational success. At the district’s elementary level, 65 percent of students are English learners. “I’m so looking forward to building a plan that honors every part of our students’ identities, and the positive impact research has affirmed it will have in their lives and therefore our community.”

The challenge set forth by Global California 2030 is a significant one. According to its mission;  “By 2030, we want half of all K–12 students to participate in programs leading to proficiency in two or more languages, either through a class, a program, or an experience. By 2040, we want three out of four students to be proficient in two or more languages, earning them a State Seal of Biliteracy.” 

The initiative came on the heels of state voters’ overwhelming approval of Proposition 58 in 2016. That measure repealed bilingual education restrictions enacted by Proposition 227 in 1998. 

California’s K-12 system is by far the biggest and most diverse in the nation, with 6.2 million students, 40 percent of whom come to school with knowledge and experience in at least two languages.

“Studies have found that speaking two or more languages has many benefits. It strengthens memory and cognitive processes, improves speakers’ ability in their first language, expands cultural knowledge and understanding, builds self-confidence, and even delays the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia,” state Department of Education officials wrote in the initiative. 

I am very excited about the coming months as we create the foundation for the Multilingual Pathways program,” said Santa Barbara Unified School District board member Rose Muñoz, adding that she is impressed by the district’s commitment to expose students to multiple languages and diverse cultures all through their educational career.

Photo: Community leaders meet to begin the process around creating a plan for multilingual pathways