This is a novel approach. Binational cooperation for mutually shared concerns and goals like this should be pursued more frequently. -Angela
May 29, 2006, 10:52PM
Mexican classes offered in S. Texas
Online science and math courses in Spanish may aid immigrants
By JANET ELLIOTT
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
AUSTIN - Some South Texas students soon will be taking online courses from Mexican high schools and could even receive Mexican diplomas under a groundbreaking program designed to help immigrant students succeed.
The program beginning this fall in two Hidalgo County school districts is the result of collaboration between the University of Texas and Mexican federal education agencies.
It is designed to reduce dropouts by allowing Spanish-speaking students to use computers to study math and science courses in Spanish, while they learn English and social studies in their Texas schools.
"Generally they drop out because they can't pass courses and get frustrated not knowing the language and sitting in classrooms. This is an incentive for them to at least see something they're passing," said Felipe Alanis, a former Texas education commissioner who helped UT design the program.
Proponents say the program will help not only immigrants, but students whose families are migrant workers or who move back and forth across the border as well, as American students from Spanish-speaking homes.
The students will be able to use the Spanish-language curriculum to supplement courses they are taking in English or even to complete a course, although they must take the final exam in English to receive Texas credit.
Some students could even receive their diplomas from Mexico, which would allow them to attend a community college in Texas.
Alanis said this option likely will only be used by students who are 17 or 18 when they enter a Texas school and have substantial credits in Mexico.
Ofelia Gaona, bilingual director for Donna Independent School District, said the language barrier is particularly difficult for older students entering Texas schools for the first time.
"So what happens is they end up dropping out of school and end up with jobs that pay minimum wage or below," she said. "A lot are very, very intelligent, they are very hardworking and they want to go to college."
William Powers Jr., president of UT-Austin, signed the educational compact earlier this month with Jorge Gonzalez Teyssier, director general of the Colegio de Bachilleres, a high school program offering online courses; and C.P. Ciro Adolfo Suarez Martinez, director general of the National Institute for Adult Education.
Witnessing the ceremony was Tony Garza, the United States ambassador to Mexico.
"This is the culmination of about nine months of intensive talks," said Alanis, associate dean of UT's Division of Continuing Education.
The talks included painstaking work to align Texas and Mexican curriculum in math and science. The alignment was necessary so students will be able to work with online resources from Mexico, as well as Mexican teachers who will help the students in computer labs.
Another key feature of the agreement will help Texas educators place older students in the proper grade by considering their transcripts from Mexico. Alanis said high school-age immigrant students are routinely placed in the ninth grade even though they may have enough academic credits to enter a higher grade.
The districts piloting the program this fall are Donna, where one-third of the 13,000 students are migrants, and neighboring Edcouch-Elsa, with 5,600 students. Each received a $500,000 federal grant to buy computers, pay for the online programs and train teachers.
The Donna district purchased laptop computers so students can study at home or while they are traveling with their families doing farm work. Edcouch-Elsa concentrated its funds on 40 desktop computers that will be placed in labs at several schools and hiring four Mexican teachers to help students with the online course work.
Different learning styles
Minerva Guerra-Gonzalez, special populations director for Edcouch-Elsa, said she believes students will be drawn by the technology.
"We have a lot of children that have very different learning styles," she said. "This program will give them access to the translation of the language. The barrier of the language is what keeps them behind sometimes."
Officials at UT's Center for Hispanic Achievement Program hope that the program will eventually expand to larger districts, such as Houston ISD, with its large population of English-language learners.
Alanis said it is coincidental that the program is launching at a time of great national debate about immigrants. Helping students who are in Texas schools complete their educations will boost the state's economy, he said.
"This is not to encourage immigration," Alanis said. "These kids are in our schools now and schools are needing help with this population."
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