By LISA FALKENBERG
Sept. 17, 2007
The candy-colored classroom full of pre-kindergarten students at Cedar Brook Elementary School seems typical, except that half of the 22 cross-legged 4-year-olds, mostly the blond ones, seem lost.
As the teacher leads the class through early morning songs and drills on colors, numbers and months of the year, some children exclaim answers and belt out lyrics. Some move their mouths but make no sounds. Still others make sounds but make no sense.
All that's to be expected. Every child in the class, regardless of his or her native language, is being taught in Spanish. After lunch, they'll get some instruction in English.
The method of instruction is known as a two-way form of "dual language," a twist on traditional bilingual instruction that combines native English speakers and native Spanish speakers in one class, with the goal of helping both become bilingual.
The immersion technique has been around for decades and has been implemented in schools across Texas. There are plenty of challenges in implementing the program, such as finding enough native English speakers to balance out the classes. But, generally, educators and researchers sing its praises, especially in regards to helping children from Spanish-speaking homes learn English while keeping pace with their peers academically.
Still, a Republican state lawmaker caught hell several months ago when he passed a bill setting up a six-year, dual-language pilot program in 30 campuses in 10 public school districts across the state.
Rep. Rob Eissler of The Woodlands, who is chairman of the House Public Education Committee, said his plan to expand the successful dual-language model got all tangled up with the immigration debate. "The only controversy is that it's being tied to illegal immigration,'' Eissler says.
"The negative stuff I hear is that 'you're bending over for these kids, for illegal immigrants,' that it's more for illegal kids than for native kids. And that's not the case. It's a more effective way to teach English. And, on a voluntary basis, English speakers get to learn another language."
Eissler said he's still waiting to see if the Texas Education Agency will fund the dual-language pilot program.
One of the leading naysayers, Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, said supporters were "worshipping at the feet of diversity." She said Texas students should focus on mastering English, period, and claimed a dual-language pilot would turn Texas students into guinea pigs.
Perhaps Riddle was unfamiliar with humankind's ability to learn many languages and the cognitive, social and economic benefits of doing so. Perhaps she was unaware of programs like the one at Cedar Brook in Spring Branch ISD, which began dual language a decade ago with apparently shining results.
The voluntary dual-language program is so popular, the school holds a lottery to determine who gets in and its participants make up about two-thirds of the 580-student body, said program coordinator Susan Eyre.
I visited a pre-K class and a class of fifth-graders nearing the end of several years of dual-language instruction at Cedar Brook.
Learning the language
In the pre-K class, a teacher used signs and body language to convey meaning as she instructed in Spanish. After only a few weeks, some English speakers had begun to understand her. One little girl, asked in Spanish if she wanted to write her name on another page, responded, albeit in English, "No, we can't do another page."
During a game teaching body part vocabulary, an English-speaking boy exclaimed, "Ears! Escucha!" the Spanish word for "listen."
Others learned at their own pace.
During Spanish song time, one boy in Spider-Man sneakers played with the drawstring on his pants and rubbed his eyes. In the middle of a verse, a little blond girl struggling through a song of salutations finally stuck out a twisted, tuckered-out tongue. The teacher, asking another what color she was wearing, encouraged the silent girl to respond, "Habla, mami. Rojo!" she said.
It's usually around Christmas when the students start verbalizing in their non-native language, Eyre said. Through first grade, the students are taught 90 percent in Spanish and 10 percent English.
"Some parents say, 'You mean you're going to teach my child to read in Spanish first?' " Eyre said. She said others ask, "How am I going to help my child when I don't speak Spanish?"
Eyre assures them that the process of language acquisition is the same, no matter the language, and that English skills would be incorporated into social studies, science and math, which are taught in English. By second grade, classes are taught in 80 percent Spanish, then 70 percent in third grade, 60 percent in fourth, until fifth grade, when students get an even 50/50 exposure to both languages.
The results are impressive. A diverse classroom of fifth-graders, Hispanic, white and black, worked on word problems and answered a teacher's questions in fluent Spanish.
When given a chance to talk amongst themselves, however, nearly every group chose the language of the land: English.
The only shortcoming of Cedar Brook's dual-language students seems to be the dreaded task of learning quirky English grammar. Because they don't have language arts in English until the fifth grade, they sometimes stumble over tricky spelling words, contractions, sentence structure and letter combinations that don't exist in Spanish.
"They're awesome Spanish writers, but everything is in English now," said teacher Jim Garrett. "The first week they were spelling 'with' like 'w-i-t.' They were just trying to imagine how to spell it because there's no 'th' sound in the Spanish language."
Not to worry. Garrett said the students catch up when standardized tests roll around.
Cedar Brook Elementary gets the highest possible rating by the state: exemplary.