Jennifer L. Berghom | The Monitor
May 17, 2009
SAN JUAN — Learning the three R's in English and Spanish simultaneously did not come easy to Oscar Martinez at first.
Martinez started participating in the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school district's dual-language program when he was in kindergarten at Pharr Elementary School.
Having learned only English at home, Martinez, now 18, found it difficult to understand some of his teachers who would give lessons in Spanish. By sixth grade, however, he could read, write and carry on conversations in his second language.
But the most encouraging result for him was that he was finally able to have a conversation in Spanish with his grandfather, something he hadn't been able to do without help from family members.
"I just felt so accomplished," said Martinez, who is among the first cohort of students in the district's dual-language program.
This year, 45 seniors from PSJA and PSJA North high schools are graduating from their respective institutions knowing how to communicate in English and Spanish through a program they have been enrolled in since elementary school.
PRODUCING MARKETABLE STUDENTS
The school district began its dual language program 13 years ago so its students would become fluent at speaking, reading and writing English and Spanish.
Parents and other members of the community had been asking the district why their children were not able to speak Spanish and English well enough to communicate with others.
The district wasn't satisfied with bilingual programs already in place in the area, said Rosalva Silva, the district's bilingual education coordinator.
So the district sought and obtained a federal grant to implement the dual language program. The program's intent is to teach students a new language while retaining the skills of their first language. All students are welcome to participate in the program in the schools that offer it, but students with limited English proficiency are required to take part in the program, Silva said.
"We thought, ‘Why not produce students who are going to be marketable?'" she said.
The program began at Pharr and Palmer elementary schools. As the students in the dual-enrollment program progressed to middle and high school, the program followed them, expanding to Liberty Middle School — where all the dual-enrollment students attended after elementary school — and then to PSJA and PSJA North high schools.
Students at the elementary level begin taking half of their subjects in English and half in Spanish. By the time they enter middle and high school, students are able to seek college credit for Spanish while continuing to take classes in both languages.
They are expected to be fully bilingual and bi-literate by the time they graduate from high school.
Because it was the only public school district in the Rio Grande Valley — and probably among a handful of districts throughout the country — to take on this endeavor, the PSJA district had to overcome obstacles and create the program as it progressed.
For one, the district didn't know where it would find teachers who could teach subjects like math and social studies in Spanish. The district wanted students to learn Spanish and English well enough that they could communicate effectively in both languages when they entered the workforce, Silva said.
Administrators thought they were going to have to hire teachers from Mexico. But they decided to look within their district first and found faculty who could teach those subjects in Spanish, Silva said.
While curricula were available for elementary schools, very little was available at the secondary level. Middle and high school teachers had to develop their own curricula for their students, translating lessons from English to Spanish, Silva said.
"We've been very pleasantly surprised," she said.
The district continues to struggle with the challenges of educating immigrants who were not attending school before their move to the United States.
Educators have found that placing those students in the dual language program helps them catch up to their peers because they're taking some classes in their native language. By building their skills in their first language, those students are able to pick up English, Silva said.
SERVING AS AN EXAMPLE
The program has been considered a success, and earlier this month representatives from national and state education policy groups visited PSJA High School as part of a weeklong tour of the Valley hosted by the American Youth Policy Forum.
Martinez and other students told the visitors about their experiences with the program and offered advice on how to help students if other schools were to follow suit.
All students said the dual-language program gave them the confidence to take on any challenge.
Martinez, who is set to graduate with more than 40 college credit hours, is taking more classes this summer at the University of Texas-Pan American before starting in the fall at Texas A&M University in College Station as a sophomore. He plans to attend law school and return to the Valley to practice law.
"I'm going to have clients who are not going to know English. I'll be a bilingual lawyer," he said.
That's a goal he said he's able to achieve because of the dual-language program.
Jennifer L. Berghom covers education and general assignments for The Monitor. She can be reached at (956) 683-4462.