Thursday, October 11, 2007

Dual-language classes growing in popularity

October 3, 2007

Jorge Cornel, who came from Mexico at age 5, spoke little English when he entered White Settlement's dual-language program five years ago. Now, the Liberty Elementary fourth-grader confidently answers questions in Spanish and English and reads chapter books in both languages.

"It's very awesome to speak two languages," Jorge said. "My grandma speaks only Spanish and I can speak to her in Spanish."

As more Hispanics make Texas their home, dual-language programs are becoming increasingly popular in schools statewide.

School districts in Arlington, Cleburne, Everman, Grand Prairie, Joshua and White Settlement started dual-language programs several years ago, as did the Birdville and Castleberry school districts. Fort Worth, Mansfield and Weatherford school districts began programs this year and Crowley officials are considering a program.

School officials say students in dual-language programs learn English faster than those in English as a second language and traditional bilingual programs. They also perform better on tests, including the TAKS, than those in the other programs.

"The transitional model was doing away with their native language," said Birdville bilingual-ESL consultant Nora Fabela, who supervises dual-language classes in three schools.

Fort Worth officials believe their dual-language classes will be as successful as in other districts.

The district began its one-way dual-language program this year for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students at 37 schools. But not everyone is on board with Fort Worth's new program, which has been criticized by some parents who fear their children won't learn English as well as in ESL or traditional bilingual classes.

Greenbriar Elementary School parent Ileana Casas opted not to enroll her child. But she said some parents who were unaware of the change didn't believe that they had a choice.

Some English-speaking Hispanic parents say people wrongly assume that they want their children to be bilingual and fear that the district is selecting by ethnicity and last names.

"The national language of the United States is English, not Spanish," Casas said. "If I want my kids to learn Spanish, I'll teach them at home. We should have voted on what parents wanted and have Spanish as an elective."

Bilingual director Margaret Balandran says the district informed parents about the program last spring and held forums to explain it.

"I'm not trying to push a program to parents," she said.

Balandran said children whose native language is not English are assessed to determine their dominant language, but parents still have the right to choose another program. Research shows that dual-language students learn faster and, in the long run, outperform English-dominant students in all core subjects, she said, citing research done by Virginia Collier of George Mason University that included two million students.

Higher scores

In Everman, where the program is in its second year, officials say the two-way dual-language program is confirming that research.

While Fort Worth serves only Spanish speakers, English and Spanish speakers learn both languages together at most other area districts. Balandran said Fort Worth is considering that program for next year.

Some Everman parents initially had similar concerns about the dual-language program, which began 60 years ago in the U.S. and has spread throughout Texas in the last 15 years.

.Despite those concerns, Spanish-speaking parent Maria Sandoval enrolled her daughter in Hommel Elementary School's program so she could help her with homework. Now, she's glad she did.

"By December, I could tell that Mayra was learning to read and write both Spanish and English," Sandoval said through an interpreter.

English-speaking parent Jennifer Bell said her daughter learned Spanish so quickly, she now reads Spanish books to her younger brother.

"Cora thinks in Spanish and English," Bell said. "She is so fluent, people start speaking to her in Spanish."

The popular program expanded from Hommel to Souder Elementary School this year and Superintendent Jeri Pfeifer plans to include two other schools if she can hire more bilingual teachers.

Everman Assistant Superintendent Cathy Anderson said dual-language first-graders had higher test scores than those in traditional bilingual or English as a second language classes. By sixth grade, data shows the performance gap is even greater.

"That's what intrigued us about dual language," Anderson said. "We felt it was best for the kids."

Support from parents

Officials in the White Settlement school district, now in its fifth year of dual language at Liberty Elementary School, also praise the program.

Spanish and English speakers are split into two classes; younger students learn language arts in their native language and other subjects in their second language. Older students are paired to allow the two groups to help each other in all subjects.

Bilingual coordinator Amy Ferguson said Spanish-speaking parents were worried that their children would not learn English and English-speaking parents were concerned that their children would fall behind in core subjects. Those parents became supporters of the program when all third-graders at Liberty passed the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills reading test -- and 20 percent had perfect scores.

Assistant Superintendent Nugget Cunningham said third-graders took the TAKS in their native language, but all fifth-graders are expected to take the tests in English.

"Research says ages 4 to 10 is the best time to acquire languages," she said. "We believe it's not only going to help with their academic skills, but skills used in the workplace."

That research impressed district administrator Frank Molinar, whose children are in the program. Molinar understands Spanish but says he isn't fluent enough to speak it at home. He was surprised that his son could converse with his Spanish-speaking grandmother six weeks into the program.

"My mother was impressed not only with his vocabulary but his pronunciation," he said. Teachers Eva Valenzuela and Cherise Brooks say most fourth-graders can speak and read chapter books in both languages. That pleases both Spanish-speaking parents who want their children to be fluent and literate in both languages, they said.

State mandate

Dual-language programs in Texas have increased from fewer than 10 to 234 in 10 years, from 1995 to 2005 according to University of Texas-Brownsville associate professor Richard Gomez.

School officials attribute the increase to a shortage of bilingual teachers and a mandate from the state that requires districts with at least 20 non-English-speaking students to offer bilingual classes. Districts can use one bilingual teacher to teach Spanish and one ESL teacher to teach English instead of needing two bilingual teachers for the two classes. Fort Worth successfully asked the state to waive that requirement last year.

Lake Worth officials started a pilot program this year because Miller Elementary School's bilingual kindergarten class was too large. They split the class, with bilingual and ESL teachers for different subjects. Bilingual coordinator Susan Casey wants to add English speakers next year.

"It allows Spanish-speaking students to learn English and gives English-speaking students a step up in the world by having two languages," said Casey, citing observations of a teacher with a daughter in an Arlington dual-language class.

Diamond Hill Elementary bilingual teacher Laura Tracy teaches language arts, science and social studies in Spanish. Mary Caldwell teaches math in English.

"I know you can count to five in Spanish, but we're going to count in English, Caldwell told her pre-kindergarteners, who marched while chanting "One, two, three, four, five!"

Next door, other students spelled their names for Tracy, who is teaching them to read Spanish books and science lessons about los cinco sentidos, the five senses. She envisions the day when her students will move from English to Spanish without thinking.

"It's a good approach to learning a second language," she said.

Teaching strategies

English as a second language (ESL): Students are taught mostly in English, helping non-English speakers learn their subjects while learning English.

Bilingual education: Students begin classes in their native language, then make a transition to English as they move to higher grades.

One-way dual language: Non-English speakers alternate learning in English and in their native language. The goal is for students to become bilingual, bicultural and bi-literate.

Two-way dual language: English-speaking and non-English speakers are taught together, alternating between classes to learn both English and the other language with a goal of becoming fluent and literate in both languages.

About dual language

Dual language programs began 60 years ago in the United States and spread throughout Texas in the last 15 years. The number of programs in schools or school districts increased from fewer than 10 in 1995 to 234 in 2005, researchers say.

School officials attribute the rapid growth in Texas dual-language programs to the shortage of bilingual teachers to meet state requirements that districts with at least 20 non-English speakers offer bilingual classes. Dual-language allows districts to use one bilingual teacher to teach Spanish and an ESL teacher to teach English instead of needing two bilingual teachers for two classes.

Fort Worth is among 167 Texas school districts that asked the state to waive that requirement. Fort Worth is among the districts that got the waiver.

Educators say dual-language students learn faster and have higher test scores than those in ESL or traditional bilingual classes. White Settlement officials said 100 percent of their dual-language students passed the third-grade TAKS reading test last year. In the long run, researchers say, dual-language students outperform English-dominant students in all core subjects.

Source: Star-Telegram research
Martha Deller, 817-390-7857 Diane Smith, 817-390-7675

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