Kids Blossom

Bilingual summer program sparks the enthusiasm of participants

Just back from recess, the elementary students laugh and chatter loudly in Spanish as they rush into Maria Zarate’s summer school classroom.

“Now, you wouldn’t see this during the regular school year,” Zarate says, referring to the exuberance of the Latino children.

A teacher for 15 years at Madison’s Allis Elementary School, Zarate has watched as the number of Spanish-speaking students at the 520-pupil school grew from just a couple to about 80. During the regular school year, when Latino students are outnumbered by their English-speaking peers, they are sometimes intimidated by the language barrier and often turn timid and clam up, Zarate says.

But this summer, surrounded entirely by other Spanish-speaking students, “you can hear them talking all the time,” she says. “It’s funny the change I’ve seen in them.”

That’s part of the reason why 40 Latino students are being given a chance to learn in a different environment this summer in a pilot program at Allis Elementary. All of the teachers are bilingual and all of the students are learning English.

They are students such as Edgardo Lugo, 10, who immigrated to the United States from Argentina three months ago with his parents, factory workers seeking a better standard of living. Edgardo has never attended a school in this country and is just learning basic words such as “pretty” and “ride.”

“These are very intelligent and creative kids, but the language barrier holds them back,” says his teacher, Lori Nelson.

Sponsored by several nonprofit groups and the district, the A-Z Bilingual Literacy Enrichment Program is an eight-week, all-day experiment to address the low average test scores and high dropout rates of immigrant students.

The district was stung this spring by a state audit that criticized its English-as-a-second-language program for mainstreaming students into English too early, then failing to provide them with sustained academic support.

The bilingual curriculum being used this summer previews the approach the district will be taking more and more with its rapidly growing Spanish-speaking population. The goal remains English proficiency, but there is now a much-greater emphasis on using the children’s native language to help them make the transition and to make sure they don’t fall behind academically in the process, says Janna Heiligenstein, the district’s ESL coordinator.

All of the books in the summer program are bilingual, and teachers stress to their students that knowing two languages is an asset that should make them feel proud.

Zarate says her students seem more at ease learning in the all-Latino classroom, but it’s an approach she would not want to see all year. Segregating them works well in summer because it gives students an extra academic push in a socially comfortable environment, she says. During the school year, it’s best to mix students so that all cultures learn from each other, she says.

Heiligenstein says the district’s new bilingual approach will ensure that cultures mix, even at schools where some classrooms will consist entirely of Spanish-speaking students. In most cases, those students still will eat lunch, play and attend music, art and computer classes with other students.

In addition to academics, the summer program sends students on field trips, teaches them to swim and immerses them in music, dance, gardening and art. That fills a gap, the sponsors say, because almost all of the other summer enrichment programs in the area require a solid base of English.



* Name: A-Z Bilingual Literacy Enrichment Program.

* Description: An eight-week, all-day pilot summer program for Spanish-speaking students at Allis Elementary School in Madison. The 40 students in kindergarten through fifth grade are divided into three classrooms, each with a bilingual teacher and aides. The school was chosen because it draws from one of the city’s largest Latino neighborhoods.

* Goals: Prepare more Spanish-speaking students to take the state’s standardized third-grade reading test; provide a structured summer enrichment program for Latino children who speak little English.

* Origin: The Schools of Hope Minority Youth Achievement Committee recommended that a summer enrichment program with a literacy focus be created to address the literacy gap of Latino students. Schools of Hope is a community effort, led by United Way of Dane County, that for more than five years has focused on boosting the test scores of minority students, which on average lag behind those of their white peers.

* Sponsors: The program is a collaboration of Centro Hispano, Contacto Latino, Joining Forces for Families, the Madison Community Foundation, the Madison School District and United Way of Dane County. Together, the groups are funding the $50,000 cost.

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