A half circle of 3-year-olds gather around their teacher as she lifts cards written in yellow, purple and brown at the Early Childhood Development Center.
Slightly distracted, a little boy whose family speaks mostly Spanish pauses over a purple card as he’s asked to identify it in Spanish.
“Purple?” he asks in English.
The teacher asks the boy to say it in Spanish. Before he can answer, a girl from an English-speaking background chimes in, “morado!”
Since school began in August, the students at the development center have learned Spanish and English through the center’s dual-language program. Students and teachers alternate each day between Spanish and English.
In September, the Corpus Christi Independent School District will begin a similar program at Zavala and Garcia elementaries. The district is planning two meetings – one Feb. 22 for Zavala parents, the other Feb. 23 at Garcia – to give details to parents and to answer questions.
District officials hope the dual language program, using a $1.3 million, five-year federal grant, will create students who can speak, read and write fluently in both languages and who understand both cultures.
The program combines equal numbers of strong English speakers and strong Spanish speakers into one classroom where they learn both languages from teachers and from each other.
Researchers and district officials say the program creates elite students with increased cognitive abilities who will be able to compete in an increasingly global economy of Spanish and English speakers.
But national organizations opposed to bilingual education are critical of the two-way program. While they like that students aren’t segregated in special bilingual classes, they say it doesn’t help Spanish speakers learn English.
Despite those criticisms, district officials remain confident that the program will help students and plan to expand it districtwide depending on the results of the program. In the meantime, the stakes are high for Zavala and Garcia students.
Zavala’s graduates feed into Miller High School, which has a dropout rate of 4.2 percent, according to the district. Garcia feeds to Moody High School, where the dropout rate is 3 percent. Those rates compare to the district’s overall dropout rate of 2 percent.
Students from Zavala attend middle schools that have the highest failure rates in the district. Students from Garcia attend Cunningham Middle School, where the failure rate in 1997-98 was 9 percent.
District officials hope to improve those rates, partly through the two-way language program.
They envision classrooms at Zavala and Garcia that will act as a bilingual community, where students eventually will switch effortlessly between English and Spanish.
Like the program at the development center, pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students and Garcia and Zavala will get half of their instruction in English and the other half in Spanish.
Students will receive their reading and writing instructions in their strongest language, said Lorena Claeys, CCISD’s bilingual program coordinator.
Student with limited English will learn important new skills in their native language, Claeys said. That way, limited English students don’t get behind in science, for example, while trying to learn English.
“They’re learning language in a natural way, but at the same time learning math and science and all of the academic standards,” Claeys said. “You wouldn’t teach a new concept in Russian. If your students don’t know Russian and they don’t know the concept, the student is going to get behind.
“But if it’s planets – and they already know the planets – you don’t have to teach the names of the planets all over again,” she added. “You just put new labels to what they know.”
Advantages of biculturalism
The Zavala and Garcia two-way programs will be implemented in stages during the next four years. Beginning this fall, selected pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classes will combine equal numbers of Spanish and English speakers. In the next school year, first grade two-way classes will be added, the next year, second grade classes will be added and so on.
Zavala and Garcia elementaries were chosen for grant funds because both schools have large numbers of students who start school with limited English skills, said Katherine Conoly, CCISD executive director for instruction.
Besides teaching fluency in two languages, Conoly said, the program also would make students bicultural.
“Associated with every language is its people and its culture,” Conoly said. “If our students can speak and read in Spanish, but they’re not able to participate in Hispanic culture or the business world, I think we’ve done them a disservice.”
Better thinking abilities
In addition to providing fluency in two cultures and languages, the two-way program also increases the thinking abilities of students, said Virginia Collier, a professor of education at George Mason University and the associate director of the Center for Bilingual/Multicultural/English as a Second Language Education.
“We’ve found that this stimulates the neurons in your brain,” Collier said. “People who go through the program have more flexibility in thinking, more problem solving abilities. They approach tasks differently because they have a wider perspective on what life is all about and how to tackle problems.”
‘Complete, dreadful failure’
Jim Boulet, executive director of English Only, a group opposed to types of bilingual education, said the two-way program is a one-way street, where English speakers learn a second language, but in which the minority language speaker, in this case Spanish speakers, suffer.
“What we’ve found is that bilingual education is a complete and dreadful failure,” Boulet said. “Its supporters continually reinvent programs that have the same bottom line: a child who arrives at school not speaking English must not be taught English.”
Boulet said the program’s goal of learning another culture is fine – but the real test is whether it will help boost Texas Assessment of Academic Skills scores.
“All these programs list goals, and the goals are high sounding,” Boulet said. “But trying to nail down what these programs actually do is like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall.
“Will the (TAAS) test be in English? Do we know that? We’re losing sight of the basic fact … that to a person living in the U.S., it is urgent and necessary to learn the language.”
Jorge Amselle, executive director for the Institute for Research in English Acquisition and Development, said the two-way program has showed promise, but English immersion is better.
In California, where bilingual education was overturned by referendum in 1998, students with weak English skills have seen improvement on standardized tests.
“Before the initiative passed, all the supporters of bilingualism said (it) was going to be a disaster,” Amselle said. “But in fact, not only did it not cause any harm, but evidence shows it has actually (been beneficial) to students.”
But Collier said data collected since the two-way program began about 10 years ago shows that students in the two-way language classes do better than their peers who are instructed in only one language.
She said that Spanish speakers not only pick up English but, overall, outperform native English speakers in class.
“In general, the whole phenomenon of being school in two languages enhances growth,” she said. “I haven’t seen one single exception of that yet. It’s one of the most powerful models we have for school reform right now.”
So far, a similar program at Dawson Elementary has fared well, CCISD officials said.
For the past three years, selected classes of kindergartners and first- and second-graders at Dawson Elementary have had most of their instruction in English, but science and math in Spanish. Dawson’s program, called partial immersion, gives children limited exposure to Spanish, but is similar to the two-way format.
While native English speakers dominate the classes at Dawson, the structure of the partial immersion program is similar to the way the dual language program that will work at Garcia and Zavala elementaries.
And students in Dawson’s partial immersion classes are doing at least as well as students in normal classes, and in some cases better, according to test data provided by the school.
Results of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the Texas Primary Reading Inventory test showed:
* Partial immersion first-graders did as well as other first-graders on math tests.
* Partial immersion first-graders, on average, scored nine points higher than their non-immersion peers.
* More kindergartners in regular classes were reading at grade level than the partial immersion kindergartners. But, by the second grade, more partial immersion students were reading at grade level. Those test results, combined with increased interest in the program, now have children on a waiting list to get into the partial immersion classes, said Dawson Principal Linda Kelly.
“Three years ago, parents really didn’t understand how you could give all the math and science in Spanish and the children would still get it,” Kelly said. ” People in Mexico, Europe, Japan, know children can do it. We’re just not used to it.”
And classrooms at Dawson, for instance, took some getting used to.
Different kind of classroom
Along one wall of the Emma Carrejos first-grade classroom are posters of frogs, bears and turtles. On another are the colors of the rainbow, the months of the year, and a list of animals students can choose to be when the teacher calls roll. It’s in Spanish.
Carrejo said the program’s goal is to have children reading and writing in Spanish. So, while she teaches math and science, Spanish is represented in her room.
“Of course, I concentrate on math and science and our standards,” Carrejo said. “But the children are there to learn a second language.”
Carrejo said that while some parents were initially hesitant about the program, after they sat in on classes most found the program worthwhile.
One parent’s experience
Dawson parent Linda Pacheco initially was concerned about putting her 6-year-old son, Austin, in the partial immersion class.
“Long term, I was excited that he would able to speak Spanish,” Pacheco said. “But I wondered if it would be too much of a struggle to learn.”
But Pacheco kept Austin in the program because of the potential to speak both languages. So far, he’s able to understand teacher instructions in Spanish.
“He says things like, ‘I need ocho (eight) forks’,” Pacheco said. “He’s learned Itsy Bitsy Spider in Spanish. I hope the program follows him all the way through school.”
‘A captive audience’
While parents at Dawson have seen results, Zavala and Garcia parents have yet to hear the details.
And, the READ institute’s Amselle said that at the onset of similar programs, districts have been known to be manipulative.
“A lot of English-speaking parents, in the past, have viewed it (the program) rather dubiously,” Amselle said. “They don’t want their child to fall behind.
“Minority parents don’t have a lot of choice,” he added. “They’re a captive audience.”
Districts typically sell the program to English speaking parents as an exclusive program, while minority parents are told they have an option – but in skewed terms, Amselle said.
“They’ll send home a note to Spanish-speaking parents,” Amselle said. “It will say, ‘Your child has special needs, that to meet the child’s need they need this program. And, by the way, it’s optional.’ That’s not really giving me a choice. It sounds like I either help my child or I don’t help my child.”
Conoly said parents will be given opportunities, including the meetings at the two schools later this month, to ask questions and get straightforward answers.
“We’re hoping the program is so attractive that (everyone) will want to be participants,” Conoly said. “If, for some reason, it isn’t, we will have to go back to the drawing board. But I would be surprised to find any parent who would not want their child to be bilingual and bi-literate.”