Educating Young Minds

Words and ideas come in many languages at area schools

Each morning, the children of Herbert Marcus Elementary rise, crook their
elbows to 45 degrees, and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. As “liberty and
justice for all” fades, they remain standing. A moment later, the intercom crackles back to life.

“Saludo a la bandera

“Juro fidelidad a la bandera de los Estados Unidos de America. Y a la republica que representa, una nacion, bajo Dios, indivisible con libertad y justicia para todos.”

At once familiar and foreign, the patriotic ritual as practiced at Marcus signals how the school has changed as more of its students trace their language and heritage to another country.

“Some people will think that’s sacrilegious to the American flag. But how are you going to get them to start living it if they don’t understand it?” asks Judy Meyer, principal of the 33-year-old school in northwest Dallas.

Marcus does more than many schools to serve immigrant students, advocates for them say. But even with a motivated principal and a faculty that has grown in its sensitivity, Marcus still struggles to reach its students with English and everything else the public expects.

Each morning, more than 900 students pour into Marcus. A third of them are foreign-born, and two-thirds are “limited English proficient” – LEP in the educators’ code.

The school is not unique in that regard, either in the Dallas Independent School District or in North Texas. The census found that more than 7 percent of Dallas County’s public school students were foreign-born, and many others are the offspring of the 16 percent of parents who were foreign-born.

Across the area, children speak more than 30 languages other than English at home – whether it is Hindi in Fort Worth, Vietnamese in Garland, Russian in Lancaster or Khmer in Carrollton-Farmers Branch. Roughly a quarter of the Spanish speakers and a third of the Asians live in homes that are what the census called linguistically isolated – no one over 14 speaks English.

Even the Pledge of Allegiance in two languages falls short at Marcus. Fifty-two students speak something other than Spanish or English at home.

“People immigrate to the United States because they want a better life. They know education is a big part of that,” says Ms. Meyer, who was once the district’s bilingual education director.

“So parents bring their kids to school with real high expectations.”

Bertha Umana, a native of El Salvador, is among those parents.

Two of her children were born in the United States, and her youngest, Christina Lara, is a bright student in Graciela Ochoa-Hernandez’s classroom of kindergartners and first-graders.

“I have no possibilities. I want her to have possibilities,” says Mrs. Umana, a factory worker who speaks, reads and writes only Spanish. “I want her to learn whatever she wants, all the languages in the world – French, Italian, Chinese.”

On an afternoon earlier this year, as Christina, 6, shows a classmate how countries on a dictionary’s world map correspond to those on a globe, that future seems possible.

Mrs. Ochoa-Hernandez sees Christina and classmate Paola Reyes as gifted and has recommended the first-graders for extra attention from the teacher who works with talented students. For both girls, it means relying on a teacher who does not speak Spanish.

“They are so strong in their native language that they’ll do fine,” Mrs. Ochoa-Hernandez says. “For so many of them, if they are just getting the concept in Spanish, they may not get it in English.”

Born in Mexico, Mrs. Ochoa-Hernandez had no Spanish-speaking teachers when she attended DISD schools. She trained to become a bilingual education teacher eight years ago because she “didn’t want the children to feel the frustration that I felt.”

Throughout the morning, Mrs. Ochoa-Hernandez guides her students in Spanish through activities both to increase their knowledge and to develop their Spanish skills.

“Once they really, really write in Spanish, the English comes very quickly,” Mrs. Ochoa-Hernandez says.

But the reliance on Spanish instruction has critics, both around the country and at Marcus. They believe it slows the learning of English, although research generally shows any delay fades by middle school.

Some Marcus teachers have bristled at Ms. Meyer’s push to team the school’s handful of bilingual education teachers with regular teachers to reach more children in Spanish. A few have transferred away from the school.

Before Ms. Meyer arrived two years ago, Marcus spread language-minority students through regular classes and used English-as-a-Second-Language, or ESL, techniques that do not require speaking Spanish. Now she tries to hire a bilingual education teacher to fill any opening.

Dan Stein, executive director of the national Federation for American Immigration Reform, questions the cost of immigrant programs to an education system already short on resources.

“The requirements for remedial training, the requirements for language training drain the system of any money it would have for enrichments like music and art,” he says.

The debate over how much instruction should come in Spanish has less significance, however, given the small number of teachers licensed to teach bilingually. Marcus still has twice as many ESL classes – 21 – as bilingual education classes.

Hung Ho, a native of Vietnam, is unlikely to have a teacher who speaks his language in Dallas. Bilingual education teachers in languages other than Spanish are next to nonexistent in Texas, so immigrants from Asia, Africa and elsewhere get ESL instruction.

When Merri Blow asks her class of fifth- and sixth-graders to pull out a book to read, Hung dutifully complies. After less than a year in the United States, he says in Vietnamese that he recognizes almost nothing on the printed pages he stares at.

Math is different. He was in fifth grade in Vietnam and had drilled there with numbers.When Mrs. Blow’s class joins another for a multiplication contest, the boys pick Hung to represent them for a final tough question that will determine whether they tie the girls. He answers correctly, but a second too slowly.

Teachers talk about a silent phase that children learning to speak English go through. For Hung, it is a smiling phase; his grin is as constant as the baseball cleats he wears to school.

“I want to communicate with American people,” Hung says through an interpreter when asked about learning English. His father, once an officer in South Vietnam’s army, moved his family away from other Vietnamese families in Oak Lawn so his four sons would be forced to speak more English.

Hung and Luyen Ngoc spend about 40 minutes a day with Linda Mahony, a teacher provided through Title I, the federal government’s largest school-aid program.

Other teachers at Marcus thought that limited English proficient students who did not speak Spanish were not served well last year, so they decided to allot some of Ms. Mahony’s time to them. Because Marcus has 14 Vietnamese students compared with four a year ago, a district Vietnamese tutor will work with them twice a week for an hour, Ms. Meyer says.

Ms. Mahony’s work is intensive ESL. “This is red candy. This is orange candy,” she has students repeat as she hands out Starbursts.

On the same day, Ms. Mahony asks her eight students to name parts of the body, making sure they use plural words when appropriate. Mrs. Ochoa-Hernandez did an identical activity with her class the week before.

Mrs. Blow uses the same kinds of demonstrative techniques with the rest of her class, spending a lot of time describing and defining in English new words and ideas. Like Mrs. Ochoa-Hernandez, she pushes her students to write throughout the day.

She admits that concentrating on English often takes time away from subjects such as science and social studies – a concern raised by immigrant advocates nationally.

Most of Mrs. Blow’s students were born in Mexico. Other than Hung and Luyen, most speak a lot of English. But their reading and writing skills have not kept up.

Mrs. Blow walks an instructional tightrope with her class. She wants them to know the rules of English and to begin to edit their own work. But she believes she must balance constantly correcting their mistakes with encouraging their use of English.

“I’m thinking a lot this year about how far to go,” she says.

Frequently, she tries to rally support in the school for new approaches such as passing along student writing as children move from grade to grade.

The school district rates language-minority students’ English skills on four levels. Ideally, students move from one level to the next in a year, although many in Mrs. Blow’s class have not.

For their part, teachers at Marcus compare learning English to a baby learning any language. It takes two to five years, they say.

The district’s research department found that last year just a fifth of the language-minority students who had special instruction for five years or more scored well enough to be English proficient.

After sixth grade, Marcus students go to Thomas Marsh Middle School. Marsh has only four ESL teachers, and only beginners in English spend most of their days in a sheltered classroom, says Mickey Romanchack, Marsh’s dean. More skilled limited English proficient students adapt well to regular classes, she says.

“They’re thrown to the wolves at Marsh,” says Ms. Mahony, the Title I teacher.

The stakes grow with the students. While in elementary school, many immigrant students are exempted from the state’s achievement test.

In middle school, students who have been in Texas schools more than three years take the state test. In high school, they must pass it to earn a diploma.

DISD never has measured the dropout rate among limited English proficient students. Nationally, some research has found it is 11/2 times greater than the overall rate.

A fifth-year teacher, Mrs. Blow speaks little Spanish and no Vietnamese.

At times, she struggles to be understood. At the school’s open house, Virdiana Ortega’s Spanish-speaking parents are worried about a man who tried to take their daughter in a car. Mrs. Blow assures them that her class works on “stranger danger,” a handy expression in English that eludes an interpreter’s best efforts.

Teaching her class means some cultural learning on Mrs. Blow’s part. She looks confused when a mother she has invited to demonstrate cooking arroz colorado washes rice straight out of a Mahatma bag not once, but twice. She learns later that the practice is precaution – to remove rocks or anything else that might be in the rice – and preference – some cooks believe the rice fluffs better.

Marcus reaches out to parents, frequently in Spanish. Using federal money, the school employs a licensed social worker to run “parent university” classes and to assist families who need help with problems that go beyond school.

The district holds adult education classes at night at Marcus, including English lessons that many parents want. But they add that work and spending time with their children make it difficult for them to attend.

Many parents worry about keeping up with their children as they learn the new language, and the parents wonder how long they will be able to help on homework.

“I see the fact that he is learning so much English,” says Blandina Lopez, the mother of Antonio in Mrs. Ochoa-Hernandez’s class and a regular at the parent university. “I worry that when he reaches my level, he will pass me by. How will I feel then?”

When Paula Reyes, Paola’s mother, says she wants to learn English but asks “who will teach me,” her daughter responds, ” Yo ” – I will. Ms. Reyes says she beams when Paola translates for her at the supermarket.

Much more regularly these days, the school deals with parents who are illiterate in Spanish.

“Just because you run it off in Spanish and send it home doesn’t mean anyone understood it,” says Cindy Hall, Marcus’ attendance clerk. “That wasn’t the case a few years ago.”

The students Marcus serves earn it some extra funding, although most of the federal money comes because students are poor, not language-minority. The state increases its aid by 10 percent for each limited English proficient student. The district passes that along mainly in larger supply budgets and by paying a $ 3,000 stipend to attract certified bilingual teachers.

But a third of the teachers working with those students did not know about the extra funding last year, a districtwide survey revealed. And nearly half did not have state-adopted textbooks.

Almost daily, Mrs. Ochoa-Hernandez uses toys and small objects that her students can hold while they learn the letter at the beginning of dinero or
dinosauro. She has access to the set of objects not because of bilingual
funding but because four of her students are deaf as well as Spanish-speaking.

Like many other predominantly Hispanic schools, Marcus is crowded. Its enrollment growth earns it four new teachers. But Mrs. Ochoa-Hernandez and Mrs. Blow teach oversize classes for more than a sixth of the school year while new staff is hired and portable classrooms are moved to the campus.

Mrs. Hall says that the school’s enrollment has grown by 100 children since last June, but the neighborhood has seen no new housing. Flipping through a school roster organized by address, she sees pages of entries next to the street numbers of small apartment complexes nearby.

Mr. Stein of the Federation for American Immigration Reform thinks that the consequences extend beyond a neighborhood.

“Immigration patterns tend to be reinforcing, and immigrants tend to live in housing much more densely. . . . The schools become overloaded,” he says. “That drives out your ability to attract a tax base. . . . It’s a dominoing effect.”

Joan First, executive director of the National Coalition of Advocates for Students, calls such criticism short-sighted.

“There isn’t any way to stop this dynamic. It is deeply rooted in groups that are already established in this country,” she says.

“If we are going to be a strong nation economically, these kids must be educated.”

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