This time last year, Tiara Rodriguez didn’t know an A from a B or a C, nor could she understand the English words that came out of her teacher’s mouth.
She was a new student in a new school in a new city, and if she wanted to succeed, she would have to learn a new language.
Tiara, 7, a second-grader at Central Elementary School in Allentown, is well on her way to meeting that challenge this year, and her progress comes as educators at the center city school try a new program to help non-English speaking students grasp the language more quickly.
For the first time, students who are in Central’s English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program will not be pulled out of their regular classrooms for English instruction. Their ESOL teachers instead will go into the regular classes and assist.
Level 1 ESOL students who know no English — like Tiara last year — will be in classrooms with bilingual teachers who will instruct in English but offer help in Spanish when necessary.
The program got its start yesterday, the first day of the 1995-96 school year for Tiara and thousands of other Allentown children.
Central Elementary educators hope the new approach helps in three ways:
*Students will connect better with the regular school community and be less likely to become alienated later and drop out.
*They will learn English more quickly by spending time with their English-speaking classmates.
*They will not fall behind in science, social studies and other academic subjects as happened in previous years when they were pulled out for ESOL instruction.
“From the research and everything we’ve seen, it’s the way to go,” said Central ESOL teacher Paulette Bartolacci. “They get more exposure to the language.”
Tiara was game.
“This year, you’re going to stay in Mrs. (Terri) Eder’s room and you’re going to learn how to read here,” Bartolacci told Tiara, who was sitting at a table with five other classmates.
“I know already (how to read),” a confident Tiara said, smiling, raising her hands and shrugging her shoulders.
“I know,” Bartolacci said. “Look how far you’ve come.”
Tiara was a special case last year. She was allowed to remain with her regular classroom teacher much of the second half of the year because of her progress in the first half, Bartolacci said.
The girl advanced from reading group to reading group, confirming educators’ suspicions that students could thrive without “pullout instruction,” Bartolacci said.
At Central, about a sixth of the students — roughly 100 — require some level of ESOL instruction. Central, which is at Turner and 9th streets, has one of the highest percentages of ESOL students in the 14,600-student Allentown School District.
The district’s percentage of ESOL students grows nearly every year. In 1990-91, 5.9 percent needed help speaking English, said Ana Sainz de la Pena, who oversees the district’s ESOL program. Last year, it was 7.4 percent.
Of the roughly 15,400 school-age children in the city counted in the 1990 census, 2.8 percent were Spanish-speaking children who spoke no English or could not speak it well.
Pena said district educators have become increasingly concerned with ESOL students’ performance in social studies, science and other academic areas. While they were learning English, they were falling behind their classmates because they were being pulled out for language instruction, she said.
“We can’t deprive them of a rich education experience by pulling them out and giving them language instruction only,” Pena said. “We need teachers -everyone
— to understand that these children have to master the curriculum.”
While other schools have been experimenting with new ESOL instruction methods in recent years, Central is trying a school-wide pilot program that educators hope will work and serve as a model for the district. Central educators have been invited to an education conference in New Hampshire later this year to discuss their program, Pena said.
Central teacher Elsie Pletz, who is bilingual, has a second-grade class with more Spanish-speakers than English-speakers. She will instruct in English as much as she can, but found it necessary yesterday to repeat all instructions in Spanish.
She plans to teach the 10 or so English-speaking students in the class Spanish for one period each day. For reading, the English-speakers who are all at advanced levels will go to another classroom so that they are not held back, she said.
Pletz said she got many questions from parents yesterday. She said she hopes parents and students consider the bilingual atmosphere of the classroom a benefit.
“I hope they regard this as ‘Wow, this is neat’ rather than ‘Is this going to slow me down?'” she said.
Eder, Tiara’s teacher, has a half-dozen Level 2 students in her class this year. Level 2 means students understand English relatively well and can read, but may have some difficulties with grammar and comprehension, Bartolacci said.
Tiara, who moved to Allentown from Puerto Rico with her family 1-1/2 years ago, was establishing herself as a classroom leader before the morning was over.
She did so without words.
When Eder asked students to be quiet, Tiara put her finger over her lips and glanced at the classmates sitting at her table.
A short while later, one student at Tiara’s table began to cry because she had no breakfast and was hungry. Tiara walked over next to her and took her hand.
Tiara said she wants to be a teacher when she grows up.
Staff writer David Herzog contributed to this story.