A Bedrock Of Bilingual Education

Partial Immersion Program Avoids Political Backlash

Carlos Justiniano, a fifth-grader at Arlington’s Key Elementary School, has been taught in Spanish almost his entire school career and is eager for more. “I think it really helps me to remember my Spanish, and when I go see relatives, it makes it much easier,” he said.

In California and other states where Spanish-language instruction is under political assault, Carlos might be used as an example of what many consider a national failure to give every U.S. student a full dose of English. But he is in Arlington, where attitudes and programs are different and where his friends, teachers and family consider him a shining success.

How can that be? In the dizzyingly complex world of bilingual education, and the political debates that swirl around it, contradictions abound. Experts point out that in California, where a popular measure to eliminate bilingual education will be on the June ballot, political distortions are common. They also note that the Arlington program is in some ways different in form and intent from the usual bilingual class.

Be that as it may, Arlington educators have shown how a program that keeps Spanish-speaking children in Spanish-language classes as long as possible can become very popular, while an effort to do the same in other places produces a sharp, electoral backlash.

“The word bilingual, that’s a very political word,” said Marjorie L. Myers, the principal of Key Elementary, or “Escuela Key” as it says on the blazer she wears at work. What teachers at Key and three other Arlington schools say they provide is a Spanish Partial Immersion Program. Half of the children in each class are from Spanish-speaking families and half are from English-speaking families. Every student spends about half the time being instructed in Spanish and half in English.

The intent is not only to bring Spanish-speaking children up to speed in English and their other subjects, the rationale for most bilingual programs, but to give English-speaking children a solid foundation in Spanish at a age when learning specialists believe they are most likely to absorb a new language.

“I think it has been very helpful to me,” said Caitlin Felker, an 11-year-old classmate of Carlos’s who comes from an English-speaking family. “It will give me many opportunities for the future.”

Caitlin’s mother, Ann Felker, a preschool teacher and the president of the PTA at Arlington’s Washington-Lee High School, said her daughter began the program in kindergarten and by first grade had declared that she thought every U.S. child should learn Spanish before English, the former being a more logical language. Felker said Caitlin has decided that instead of going to her neighborhood middle school next year, she will attend Gunston Middle School, the only middle school in the county that offers a continuation of the immersion program.

In California and other states that support bilingual programs, increasing numbers of educators and immigrant parents have argued that the Spanish-language lessons act as a crutch and keep students from developing the English skills they will need in high school or college. A recent poll by the nonpartisan San Francisco-based Field Institute shows 69 percent of voters supporting the anti- bilingual education initiative and only 24 percent opposing it. Among Latino voters, 66 percent are in favor, and 30 percent oppose it.

Tim Schultz, the director of communications for US English, a Washington-based citizens action group that supports the California initiative, said that effort is designed to eliminate programs that give students little English instruction, while a half-Spanish, half-English program such as Arlington’s is much better. “The Spanish-speaking kids are not sent off by themselves for the whole day,” he said. “They are with the English-language kids and are learning together.”

Key Elementary is the only Arlington school totally devoted to the immersion program. Parents who prefer a standard English curriculum send their children to other elementary schools. A few other schools in Northern Virginia have immersion programs, but most area schools do not have bilingual programs and use instead the English as a Second Language (ESL) approach with non-English-speaking students. In ESL, an English-speaking teacher has students repeat phrases, describe objects and do other exercises that introduce them to English, much as a small child learns to talk.

In Key Elementary’s cheery classrooms, the unusual social dynamics of the immersion program are evident. In most cases, the Spanish-speaking children are better at English than the English-speaking children are at Spanish, an advantage to be expected since English is the dominant language of U.S. television, radio and play on the streets. In Spanish-language classes, the Spanish-speaking children, who at other schools might be considered slow and disadvantaged, are the stars and can be heard prompting English-speaking friends who stumble over words.

A recent report by Wayne Thomas and Virginia Collier, of the Graduate School of Education at George Mason University, noted that the number of students from non-English-speaking families has quadrupled in Arlington in the last two decades. The researchers found that the county’s efforts to build English skills using ESL and other common methods put most of the students into the regular classes fairly quickly, but once there they stayed far behind native English speakers, particularly in high school.

Dual-language programs such as the one at Key, on the other hand, “show the highest long-term student achievement for English learners” in national studies, the researchers said. They recommended partial immersion be extended to many more schools.

Carlos’s mother, Nolaska Miller, a hairdresser who comes from Bolivia, said she thinks that is a splendid idea. “It is an excellent program,” she said. “I have nephews who have done it, and they are now in college and doing very well.”

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