PITTSBURG — The kindergartners from Parkside Elementary scoot their chairs around a child-size table to concentrate on Spanish and English words that begin with the letter “n.”

“Na, na, na,” says teacher Yvonne Ruiz-Hunter, illustrating the sound and pointing to noviembre, ni?o, nido, nube and noche.

Learning about “n” is easy for bilingual kindergartners because unlike “j” — which is silent in Spanish and noisy in English
— “n” tends to sound the same in both languages.

“How do you say noche en ingl?s?” Ruiz-Hunter asks the 5- and 6-year-olds.

“Night!” blurts a tiny voice accompanied by a hand shooting into the air.

“Muy bien,” says the teacher.

Like giant sponges, the children in Ruiz-Hunter’s class soak in Spanish and English words and spill them back out in buckets. One minute, a student is tugging on Ruiz-Hunter’s sleeve and calling “maestra”; the next, she’s urging, “Teacher, teacher, look at my picture.”

The bilingual program at Parkside is a model that is on the state chopping block. If Californians pass Proposition 227 on June 2, the school’s Spanish-based classrooms would likely become English-based.

Like most transitional bilingual programs, the thrust at Parkside is to provide students with a strong grounding in Spanish so that they will develop a better skills in English. At Parkside, the goal is to turn out bilingual and biliterate students.

When Ruiz-Hunter drills the sounds of the alphabet, she is essentially teaching a phonics-based reading program that can apply to Spanish or English.
To supplement her instruction, she uses exaggerated sounds, pictures and hand signals.

“When our students are learning a second language, on top of that they are learning the curriculum,” said Ruiz-Hunter, who has taught bilingual classes for 15 years. “They are doing two or three things at once.”

To capture the attention of her kindergartners, Ruiz-Hunter moves quickly from small group projects to storytelling to a discussion of the weather to recess and back again.

Most of the 31 students in her classroom come to the modest school down the street from City Hall speaking Spanish at home, on the playground and around their neighborhoods. In class, about two-thirds of their lessons are in Spanish and one-third are in English.

Ruiz-Hunter often assembles her students into small groups by ability.
Several speak English with some proficiency and others strain to grasp basic instructions.

At one table, they practice writing numbers and speaking English with the afternoon kindergarten teacher. Others sit cross-legged on the floor reading “La Fiesta” aloud in Spanish with a bilingual aide. Some work with clay, while others draw pictures and write sentences.

Rosy Guillen, 6, chats with classmates in Spanish about whether to color hens red, brown or purple and then asserts confidently, “I can speak English and Spanish.” She proves it by rattling off her age, favorite colors and the number of brothers and sisters at home.

Rosy joins her classmates on the floor as the teacher flips through a chart of letters. Ruiz-Hunter holds up the letter “g” and calls out “Ga, ga, ga.”

“Gato,” yells Rosy.

Ruiz-Hunter switches to “w” and the students are momentarily stumped. “Washington,” offers one boy. “Wagon,” says another.

“The ‘w’ words are all in English,” notes Ruiz-Hunter, pointing to the letter and letting the explanation sink in. “Todos son en ingl?s.”

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