During an afternoon lesson at the Tony Reyes Bilingual Child Development Center, toddlers Nadia Males, Brianna Cole and Andrew Huffin joined teacher Celia Martinez in a circle on the floor.
Martinez hoisted a clear plastic bottle filled with balls and shook the bottle three times as she counted, “Uno, dos, tres.”
She turned the bottle over allowing the balls to fall to the floor.
“Cuantas pelotas hay?”
She asked the children in Spanish how many balls there were. The children scrambled to pick up balls and drop them back in the bottle. As each child returned a ball, the group counted in Spanish until they had accounted for each of 10 balls.
The next time the group played the game, they counted the balls in English. The third game returned to Spanish.
On the other side of a chain-link fence separating the Reyes Center at 420 SW 10 from Celebrations Educational Services, 431 SW 11, older children learn geometry skills in a lesson independent of language.
Celebrations board member ReJeania Steiner started a lesson about circumference by running a finger around the edge of a circular piece of wood that fit into a block of wood with many different sizes of circles.
These Montessori lessons are designed to reach children by connecting abstract ideas to concrete objects when language might be an obstacle.
The children who had been running and playing paused and silently watched Steiner’s demonstration.
Both nonprofit centers reach out to the city’s non-English-speaking population by offering bilingual programs for children. The Reyes center is a day care for infants and toddlers, and Celebrations is a preschool for children ages 3 to 6.
While the two programs have similar goals, they have different approaches to bilingual education. Students at Celebrations receive instruction in English only, and children at the Reyes center are taught in both English and Spanish.
Celebrations serves children whose parents want them to learn English, organizers said. Most students at Celebrations speak Spanish as their first language, but the program is open to all non-English-speaking children.
“They (parents) know that English is the language that will open doors for them in this country,” Steiner said.
Soon, a federal grant will lessen the gap between the two, although the Reyes center will still serve younger children.
This month, the Reyes center received a $ 187,000 grant to become an Early Head Start program.
The grant will expand the number of toddlers and infants served by the Reyes center, but will give preference to children with the greatest financial need.
Center Director Nina Gonzales said the demand for Early Head Start in the area is high. She has received many inquiries, although the program will not begin until spring.
Mikael and Fabiana Males believe in the value of bilingual education. Their daughter, 18-month-old Nadia, attends the Reyes program. Nadia’s developing Spanish skills is important to her parents because English is the predominant language in the home.
Nadia Males is bilingual at 18 months old, achieving a goal important to her parents. Her mother, Fabiana Males, is from an Argentine family, and her father, Mikael Males, speaks English primarily with his daughter.
Fabiana Males thinks learning Spanish will teach young Nadia her culture.
“My parents are so, so proud when they hear her speaking Spanish,” Fabiana Males said. “She even knows when it is appropriate to speak in which language.”
The Reyes center serves children from a variety of backgrounds – some are children of Latino Community Development Agency employees, which is in the same building. Some children are taken to the Reyes center so the parents can feel more comfortable communicating with caregivers in Spanish.
Although most Celebrations staff members can speak Spanish, children receive regular lessons in English. The focus of Celebrations is academic, and it is not certified as a day-care center.
The criteria for a child to participate in Celebrations includes coming from a non-English-speaking home, the level of family income and parental participation in Celebrations programs.
Although it costs the center about $ 400 per child per month to provide services, parents pay up to $ 120 per month.
Many parents must make sacrifices to send their children to Celebrations. Executive Director Elizabeth Durham is acutely aware of the struggle some parents face when giving their children an education. For this reason, some students attend the school for free.
Durham thinks it is important to reach those children who might not be able to participate otherwise. She fulfills this mission to reach the city’s poor and non-English-speaking residents by recruiting children from their homes.
“When the parents return from the migrant farms or Mexico where they spent the summer, she is on their doorstep reminding them it is time for school,” Steiner said of Durham’s efforts.
Reaching parents is also a goal of the program. Durham, who is from Mexico herself, teaches parents English and offers parenting skills help when necessary.
Besides offering academic instruction, Durham and Celebrations teachers try to teach self-esteem and independence to the children.
The children must pick up after themselves after an afternoon snack by wiping down tables and pushing in chairs. The hodgepodge of languages at the preschool shows as children speak with each other in Spanish, but communicate with teachers in English while they clean.
During class time, though, children receive reminders to speak in English. The Montessori-based curriculum is wrapped around familiar items. The setting in the preschool includes dressing tables, mops, a sofa – things to make the 30 children in the program feel more at home.
Durham boasts of the success of Celebrations children and cites a 1995-96 study prepared by Kimball Data and Evaluation of Norman.
The study followed the progress of Celebrations students and compared their public school success with other limited-English proficiency students in Oklahoma City public schools. The 1996 Iowa Test of Basic Skills composite scores for 1986-88 Celebrations alumni were higher than other limited-English proficiency students.
Although Celebrations organizers have data to back their claims of success, Steiner worries that a national discussion on bilingual education may stifle the efforts of both Celebrations and the Reyes center.
She said bilingual education is integral to non-English-speaking children’s success in the public school system. She added that immersion programs, which completely disallow children to speak their native language, can leave children with low self-esteem and limit their development.
“Immersion programs just won’t work for these children,” Steiner said. “Children at this age just don’t compartmentalize; the learning never stops for them.”