Saturday, March 13, 2010

Becker seeking kids for dual language program

Wish we could have dual language in all of our segregated schools. If they're predominantly comprised of Latinos, they're set up for it as a good fraction will be bilingual learners and another good fraction will be monolingual speakers of English. In the future, hopefully.


Becker seeking kids for dual language program
Officials are looking beyond elementary school's boundaries to attract Spanish-speaking families.

By Laura Heinauer and Gissela SantaCruz


Published: 9:58 p.m. Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Becker Elementary School officials aren't having problems selling its new dual language program to families living near the underenrolled campus in South Austin. The trick is convincing Spanish-speaking families who live miles away that it's worth the trek.

The Austin school district is testing a two-way dual language offering with kindergartners and first-graders at four schools starting in the fall. District officials have said the program's launch at Becker is contingent on recruitment and that the ideal mix is 50 percent English speakers and 50 percent Spanish speakers.

So far about 30 students have signed up, but more Spanish speakers are needed. The district wants to have 88 students at each campus. The deadline to apply is March 26, and officials are hoping to garner more interest during an orientation session tonight .

Becker has long tried to draw more students from the Bouldin neighborhood, located between the SoCo and SoLa districts south of downtown. Now, having piqued the interest of several of the young families that live near the school, officials are wooing families from across Interstate 35, including those in the Linder and Houston elementary school areas.

"What I've been telling them is that some parents will pay $1,000 a month for a Spanish immersion program like this," Becker Principal Betty Jenkins said, describing her conversations with Spanish-speaking families in the past few months. "I tell them it is a really good opportunity."

The program

In the district's new two-way dual language program, early elementary school students at all participating campuses will be taught about 30 percent of the time in English and 70 percent the time in Spanish . Celia Glick , the district's dual language director, said students will get reading and language arts lessons in their own languages. Science and social studies will be taught in Spanish, and math will be taught in English.

Extracurricular activities and things like announcements will be in Spanish on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and in English on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Jenkins said the look of the school will be different as well. For example, water fountains and furniture will be labeled in both English and Spanish. In addition, walls in all classrooms will have color-coded vocabulary words — red for Spanish and blue for English. She said students will be expected to use these walls as cues for understanding lessons that aren't in their native languages.

As students get older, they will get reading and language instruction in both languages daily. More English instruction will be introduced, but Spanish instruction will continue about half the time, Glick said.

"The goal is to have students who are bilingual, bicultural and biliterate by fifth grade," Glick said. Ultimately, students would be able to continue in the dual language model through high school.

A unique situation

Perez Elementary School, which is at capacity, is accepting applications only from students who live in that attendance zone. Wooten and Ridgetop elementary schools, like Becker, are also looking for more students, but Glick said she expects that the neighborhoods surrounding those campuses will provide the mix of students required to make the model work.

Despite adding more middle- and high-income families to its attendance zone, Becker has seen its enrollment drop. In 2005-06, Becker, which can hold 550 students, enrolled 235 students, 88 percent of whom were from low-income families and 25 percent of whom were learning English.

Then-Superintendent Pat Forgione recommended it be closed in 2006, but the community rallied to keep it open. By 2008-09, enrollment had dropped to 192 students, 92 percent of whom were from low-income families and 38 percent of whom were learning English.

Deborah Trejo said she will enroll her English-speaking children in the dual language program. Trejo said the offering — a first for Austin but common in other large districts — is just the thing to turn things around at Becker.

"For me, it means that we have a fighting chance and that we're going to be a model school for the district," the Bouldin resident said.

Jenkins said that though some neighborhood English-speaking parents are concerned about the quality of the school, most are optimistic about the program. The campus received a rating of academically unacceptable in 2007, the lowest under the state accountability system . It was rated academically acceptable in 2009.

Luring students

Jenkins said parents of Spanish-speaking children outside the attendance zone had thought the program was only for gifted students. It's actually open to students districtwide, Jenkins said, including those with special needs. However, parents have also been concerned about how their children would get to Becker. Jenkins said the district has not committed to providing transportation.

Cynthia Valadez , a community activist who has criticized the district's dual language effort, said administrators should focus on boosting the academic success of English-language learners and not on filling underenrolled schools.

"The program needs to be where the (English-language learners) are located," Valadez said. "They're trying to make the dad-gum tail wag the dog."

But Maria Rivera , a Spanish-speaking parent living within the Becker attendance zone, said she is happy her school was chosen.

Rivera said she hopes this type of bilingual education will allow the youngest of her four children to learn English while retaining Spanish — something her eldest son has already begun to lose at 13.

"The current program is set up in a way that doesn't support the learning of two languages," Rivera said in Spanish. "And I see that my son speaks less and less Spanish.

"It may seem easy to say that we will teach our children Spanish at home and they can learn English at school. But the truth is, learning both languages at school is the only real solution to helping our children be truly bilingual," she said. "At home, we cannot teach them proper grammar or reading skills. But in school, they can learn this for two languages with a dual language program."

Dual language information session

Parents of children who will be in kindergarten and first grade in the 2010-11 school year are invited to attend a dual language orientation session tonight at 6 p.m. at Becker Elementary School, 906 W. Milton St., one of four elementary schools in the Austin school district that will offer the new program.; 445-3694

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