Friday, January 04, 2008

AISD looks to restart 'dual-language' program

Exciting news for students and the Austin community. -Patricia

District dropped program, which involves alternating instruction in English and a second language, in 2003 after disappointing results

By Laura Heinauer
Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Austin school district, one of the largest school districts in the state without a program in which English and non-English speakers both learn two languages, is considering giving the dual-language approach a second try.

Across the country, such programs, which proponents say promote bilingualism, are gaining in popularity, with about 330 nationwide in 2007, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics, a language research and education group based in Washington.

But in the Austin school district, such a program hasn't been tried since a Spanish dual-language program at Harris Elementary School was shut in 2003.

Unlike one-way bilingual and English-as-a-second-language programs, which are aimed primarily at teaching English to non-native speakers and are found at many area public schools, dual-language programs serve English and non-English speakers by alternating the language used during the school day. The goal is have students become fluent in both.

"It creates an atmosphere where everyone is learning a language," said Martha Garcia, the district's executive director of bilingual education. "It becomes a situation where, if I'm a Spanish speaker, I can help my English speaking classmates as much as they can help me. There's more of an equality, and kids feel more empowered."

The district has formed a committee to look at what it would take to begin such a program in Austin, Garcia said. The challenges include finding the funding, gathering community support and recruiting the special staff members needed for such a program.

The program at Harris Elementary was shut down after three years when grant funding ran out and administrators said they were seeing only varying degrees of effectiveness in academic performance.

In an letter to the editor in the American-Statesman, district administrators said a "significant number of students at the time were performing below grade level in their native language because they weren't given the opportunity to have a good, solid basis for literacy before going to a second language. They, therefore, weren't developing their literacy in either language."

They added that success requires every child to have both a command of his or her home language and to be on grade level in literacy skills in the native language if he or she is to fully benefit from the second language.

Today, many experts say that students in such programs, if they are done properly, often out-perform students in monolingual settings.

Julie Sugarman, a research associate with the Center for Applied Linguistics, said the key to success in such programs is an early and strong focus on literacy for all speakers of the non-English language. Administrators, she added, need to be patient and not judge language skills too harshly until fifth grade.

"We know for the non-English speaker, it helps them learn English ... and for the English speaker, it's what's needed for them to do grade-level work by the third or fourth grade," Sugarman said.

In Austin, Garcia said, studies show that former English-language learners, or students who successfully complete the program, pass the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills at higher rates than all other students.

Marcelo Tafoya of the League of United Latin American Citizens said that those figures are not surprising.

"If you know the culture, you will understand why, when they get into something like this, they will really do better," he said. "You want a better job, learn two languages. Being that we're the largest of the minorities right now, we should take advantage of it."

Others question the need for dual-language programs in public schools, saying that such programs are expensive and that students in them run the risk of being functionally illiterate in both.

Currently, the demand for dual-language programs in Austin is being met by private schools such as Petite Ecole Internationale, a French immersion Montessori school, or organizations that offer instruction for young learners.

Justin Scott hopes to open a dual-language charter school in Austin where students would be taught about 90 percent of the time in Spanish starting in kindergarten, adding more English each year until instruction becomes 50 percent in Spanish and 50 percent in English by fourth grade. Scott said he's had the most interest from English-speaking parents.

"We're seeing a big demand because there's nothing like it in Austin," he said. "A lot of the parents we've had lived abroad. ... That intercultural awareness is paramount for a lot of these parents."

Austin officials have said they look at dual-language programs as a way to tailor services to best meet the needs of particular students, similar to building a middle school for girls and providing theme-based education for high school students.

The specifics of what Austin's dual-language program might look like have yet to be decided.

Garcia said that it probably would start in just one school but that it hasn't been decided whether enrollment would be open to the entire city.

A program for Spanish speakers makes sense, she said, because you need a significant number of students and teachers who speak a language other than English, but that is still to be determined.

The district has schools with bilingual programs for Korean and Vietnamese speakers. Though some have said under-enrolled Becker Elementary School in South Austin would be a good option for a dual language program, Garcia said, that's not a sure thing either.

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