Immigrant secondary students will learn subjects in Spanish
By STELLA M. CHÁVEZ | The Dallas Morning News
December 26, 2007
When Rogelio Teran's English as a Second Language teacher asks her class if dinosaurs are extinct, he is stumped at first.
Is it, he asks in Spanish, the same as extinción?
New to this country, Rogelio, 15, is like many newly arrived immigrants. He struggles to understand basic concepts presented to him in English.
But what if those concepts were taught in Spanish?
Beginning in January, Rogelio and other students in the Dallas Independent School District will be able to take courses such as algebra, biology, geometry, chemistry and world history online and in Spanish.
The approach is unlike anything tried before in Texas school districts, which traditionally teach older immigrant students in English. Bilingual education and the use of Spanish has long been the practice in elementary schools, but the dearth of qualified bilingual teachers has made it nearly impossible to replicate those efforts at the secondary level.
The problem with the current system, some educators say, is that students aren't learning new material quickly enough – if at all – because they don't understand English, the instructional language. The result: Students fall behind or drop out.
"They've had nothing like this before," said Felipe Alanis, associate dean for the division of continuing education at the University of Texas at Austin, which is spearheading this initiative dubbed LUCHA, the Spanish word for fight. "It's either sink or swim, so it's very difficult" for immigrant students.
Exams in English
Students will continue to learn the material in English and eventually must take exams on the courses in English.
"You can kind of think of LUCHA as an online tutoring class," said Marianne Martin, director for secondary English as a second language programs in DISD.
Angel Noe Gonzalez, a bilingual education expert, said the concept sounds promising and historic" but he is concerned about how and when students would be tested. He is in favor of students learning in their native language. Otherwise, they sit lost in class, he said.
But he argues that students won't do well on the English version of an exam soon after having learned the material in Spanish.
"It doesn't make sense to be taught in Spanish and then take an exam in English," he said. "All of the research I have ever read or understand is that it takes five to seven years to gain proficiency enough to learn English."
Ms. Martin said that the district is still hammering out details and that adjustments likely will occur along the way.
So far, about 10 Texas school districts, including Houston and Austin, have signed up to participate in LUCHA. Oregon, Washington, California and other states have implemented similar efforts under a partnership with Mexico's Colegio de Bachilleres and National Institute for Adult Education.
Educators around the country are struggling to come up with new and innovative ways to address the growing dropout rate among Latino immigrant students. According to a 2003 Pew Hispanic Center study about dropout rates among Hispanic youths, about 20 percent of Mexican immigrant students educated in U.S. schools drop out. A lack of English-language skills is a prime characteristic of Latino dropouts.
Tim King, director of Clackamas Web Academy and Clackamas Middle College in Oregon, said he is not convinced that offering courses in Spanish is enough to keep immigrant students in school. So his school supplements the Spanish online instruction with English-language learning software and programs that teach core courses such as math and science in English.
The Web academy launched its pilot program in the fall for 27 students who had either dropped out or not enrolled in school.
"It is pretty early [to know the results], but one thing that is clear to us is that we have groups of young people – all of whom were not in school before – who appear to be excited. They appear to be motivated," he said. "They're completing a significant amount of work."
Reaction to Oregon's pilot program has been mixed. Critics, including numerous bloggers, have blasted it for catering to immigrants, arguing that students should learn only in English.
Mr. King disagrees.
"The problem with that particular argument ... is that it's already been tried with these kids and that's what failed the first time," he said.
Ms. Martin said she believes students will eventually have a better grasp of English.
"The goal of our program is to help these students transition into our general ed classes, and I think this will expedite this process," Ms. Martin said. "In my opinion this is going to make a big difference in their English acquisition."
DISD has selected 10 schools that have a high percentage of limited-English proficient students to participate in LUCHA.
In the 2006-2007 school year, DISD had 49,503 students who were classified as limited English proficient, or about 31.2 percent of the district's entire student body. While that number includes students from various countries, the majority of students are Spanish-speaking.
UT-Austin is offering different components of the program and districts can elect to participate in one or all of them. For example, Dr. Alanis' staff will coordinate with districts to administer diagnostic tests to students who are planning to take the online courses. The tests will help determine the academic level of a student.
In addition, the university will help districts obtain and interpret transcripts from a student's school in Mexico in order to place students in the appropriate grade level.
The program is not cheap. It can cost a district anywhere from $30 to $500 per student, depending on the services.
DISD has designated $175,000 for the pilot project. The money will come from Title III funds, which are dollars allocated for limited English proficient students.
Sonya Gilb, ESL department chair for DISD, said she's excited about trying something new with her students, many of whom have difficulty with math or science.
"We have them in an algebra class where they don't really understand what is going on and the teacher is doing his best to modify [instruction] so they can understand," she said. "I feel so sorry for them. It's not that they're not smart. They are smart. It's just the language barrier."
After class, Rogelio explains he's eager to learn English so he can move on to more advanced classes.
"Everything that I'm learning, I learned in Mexico," he said. "I need to learn English more quickly."
THE LUCHA PROGRAM: FIGHTING TO LEARN
What: Beginning in January, DISD students identified as limited English proficient will be eligible to take classes such as algebra and biology both online and in Spanish. Students will continue to learn the material in English and must eventually takes exams in English.
Who: Ten schools and about 200 students will participate in the pilot program called LUCHA, which means "fight" in Spanish. It's also an acronym, Language Learners at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for Hispanic Achievement.
Why: The idea is that recent immigrant students will learn concepts more easily and not fall behind if taught in their native language.
How: The University of Texas at Austin is administering the program under a partnership with Mexico's education agencies. Similar efforts are underway in other Texas school districts, Oregon, Washington and California.
For more information: http://www.utexas.edu/cee/dec/lucha/