Durham school officials, believing Spanish-speaking students will learn English more quickly if they master their native language first, are forming new classes to strengthen those students’ reading and writing skills.
Instead of taking regular Spanish classes that spend time on listening and speaking skills they’ve already acquired, selected students at several middle and high schools will take a separate Spanish literacy class.
Organizers of the Spanish for Native Speakers program say students with weak literacy skills in their own language sorely need this opportunity.
“It’s kind of like building a house,” said Luisa Haynes, a Spanish teacher at Southern High School. “If your foundation is cracked, your building won’t hold. You have to build on something that’s stable, and it’s the same thing with language.”
That opinion represents one side of a longstanding debate between those who support bilingual education and those who favor immersing foreign students in the English language.
Proponents of the bilingual approach contend basic reading skills are transferable among languages. Opponents argue it takes too much time and money to teach those things in Spanish when students have to learn them in English anyway.
“We have such a growing Spanish-speaking population that we’re going to have to find out what way works in Durham,” said Dean Storelli, ESL coordinator in Duke University’s continuing education department.
Eventually, the school system plans to make the classes standard in all middle and high schools. For now, though, they will be offered at Southern High School and Githens and Neal middle schools, as well as other sites if they can be organized before school starts Aug. 18.
Money for the pilot classes is coming from part of Project Lingua, a roughly $ 250,000 federal grant the Durham schools have received to help students, particularly Hispanics, who are not proficient in English.
Alan Teasley, who helped write the grant, said the school system finally is able to make this the priority it should have been years ago. Many students no longer will have to learn and develop the English language at the expense of their own, he said.
Hispanics constitute nearly half of the system’s students who speak English as a second language.
The system doesn’t have enough money to offer similar classes for students who speak other foreign languages.
Haynes, who emigrated to the United States from Cuba as an infant, doesn’t remember struggling to adapt to a new culture. But while school is in session, she sees students daily doing just that, trying to survive in an unfamiliar world and earn decent grades at the same time.
“Whether we consciously or subconsciously do this, we make the assumption that all of their problems are language barriers,” she said. “We’re doing the best with what we’ve got, but unfortunately, we’re treating them as if they all have the same educational background.”
Students for too long, she said, have tried to learn a new language without the proper support.
As part of Spanish for Native Speakers, students will take a diagnostic test so teachers will know how to tailor assignments.
For example, more advanced students might be asked to compare and contrast an author or artist from their native land to someone comparable from the United States.
All assignments will be designed to help students get to know their heritage better.
Portia Wilson-Whitaker, who coordinates ESL programs for the school system, said the best way to do that is to allow students to use the words they grew up hearing.
“It is very important for a student to develop his first language,” she said. “That’s the mother language. That’s the language that’s close to the heart.
“And it’s a blueprint for understanding another language more easily.”