Bilingual school's students double their knowledge

BOULDER – Stephanie and Michael Moore drive more than 20 miles a day to get their second-grader, Kevin, to a school where he can learn in two languages – English, their own language, and Spanish.

“We value the way the world opens up when you can speak more than one language,” Stephanie Moore said.

Martha Navarez, who knew little English when she moved to Colorado in 1991 from Juarez, Mexico, also wants her son Emmanuel to learn in two languages. “It’s great to see him communicate in one language, then turn his head and communicate in another. It’s two in one. For the future.”

Both families have enrolled their children at Escuela Bilingue Washington – the Washington Bilingual School – a Spanish-English public school that draws children from throughout Boulder County.

Of the 288 children at the school, half are native English speakers and half are native Spanish speakers. The goal of the school is to ensure that all children can speak, read and write fluently in both languages by the time they leave fifth grade.

The school is succeeding so well that visitors come from far and near to see how it operates. Two similar schools have been started in Fort Collins and Brighton, and there has been some discussion in the foundation community of starting a similar school in Denver. Comparable programs operate in more than 200 schools in 22 states.

In the national debate over bilingual education, crucial differences among programs often are overlooked.

Research comparing various programs shows that the model used at the Washington Bilingual School helps students become more proficient in their native language and in fundamental academic concepts even as they master a second language.

Two languages, two cultures, are emphasized in everything done at the school, from the secretary’s cheerful telephone greetings and the signs reading “Bienvenidos!” and “Welcome!” to the storybook mural that arches over the entrance to the century-old building.

Painted clay figures created by children represent characters from storybooks they have read in Spanish and English – “The Cat in the Hat,” “La Llorona,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe,” “Black Beauty,” “Los Tres Cerditos.” A split day of learning

Families can gather on couches in the foyer while waiting to greet their children or see a teacher. “Parents feel very, very welcome here,” Navarez said.

Children spend part of the day learning in their first language and part of the day learning in their new language.

Basic concepts in reading, writing and math are taught first in a child’s native language. As children work daily to master the vocabulary and grammar of their second language, the concepts easily transfer, Principal Joann Trujillo-Hays said. Soon students are speaking, reading and writing in the second language, too.

Native English-speakers and native Spanish-speakers come together for part of the day to learn social studies, science, music, art and physical education. The mixed group learns in English for up to three weeks, then in Spanish for up to three weeks, rotating back and forth.

All teachers speak both languages but teach in only one. “When children come into my classroom, they enter a ‘country’ where only Spanish is spoken,” said second/third-grade teacher Melvid Ferry. “They must speak to me only in Spanish, and I speak to them only in Spanish.”

A true head start

For their English language learning, her children go to Marta Krewson’s classroom, where they may speak only in English.

The two teachers work as a team, scheduling and planning together. Similar teacher teams work at all grade levels.

“It doesn’t faze Kevin if his instruction is in English or in Spanish,” Stephanie Moore said of her second-grader. “He is already able to read and write in Spanish as well as in English. The teachers are excellent.”

Fifth-graders are expected to read novels, write long reports and stories, and understand presentations in both English and Spanish.

On one recent day, fifth-graders whose first language is English listened to a science lecture given entirely in Spanish.

Their teacher, Kathy Chumacero, was reinforcing some biology concepts previously presented in English. She used expressive gestures to make sure her students understood the Spanish words they would need to carry out a genetics assignment featuring inherited characteristics such as pecas (freckles), ojos grandes (big eyes), cutis seco y sensitivo (dry and sensitive skin) and pelo rizado (curly hair).

Across the hallway, fifth-graders whose first language is Spanish were in an all-English classroom, expanding their knowledge of the English words for body parts.

Both groups of fifth-graders that day worked together in a computer lab on long adventure stories they are composing in Spanish. In art class they listened to a lecture in English on famous portraits by artists ranging from Edouard Manet to Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol.

As the children learn each other’s languages, they learn to respect one another, said Navarez, whose 11-year-old son is now a fifth-grader.

She enjoys seeing Emmanuel speaking English, “and it is good to also see the English speakers, the boys and girls, speaking Spanish. It’s great! I love that school!”

English-speaking parents are equally pleased. Molly Hardman said her 10-year-old son, Ryan, a fourth-grader, spoke such fluent Spanish on a recent family trip to Mexico that cab drivers and waiters turned to stare, wondering where he had learned it.

But children also use their Spanish closer to home. Eleven-year-old Jessica Novack and her brother Cody, 9, have discovered Boulder vendors who sell Mexican candies such as chilitos and tamarindos. “We talk in Spanish to them, and they give us discounts,” Jessica said.

Their mother, Patty Novack, who remembers trying to learn a foreign language in high school, is envious. “By starting so young, they’re not having to struggle the way we did.”

The Moores said they believe that knowing two languages will be a major asset for the children in the future. “As the world gets smaller, the need for more than one language is more apparent,” Stephanie Moore said. Her husband, a mechanical engineer who travels internationally, “needs an interpreter to help him with negotiations in Central America. If he could speak Spanish, he could do the business himself,” she said. “Those who have the language advantage will have the advantage over other applicants for numerous jobs.”

Principal Trujillo-Hays has taught in other bilingual programs but said they do not compare to this one. “I’ve been in bilingual education 15 years, but I’ve been amazed to see what these children can do. I knew it was possible, but I’ve never seen a school where all children leave truly able to read and write in both languages.”

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