Learning first in bilingual program

The Corona-Norco school board is convinced that students need to continue with their studies in Spanish, at least in the primary grades, while they gradually acquire English skills.

CORONA—One theory says if you throw a Spanish-speaking child into an English-speaking environment, it won’t be long before he picks up his new language and culture.

Another theory says that a student needs to hear school lessons in his native tongue in order to avoid losing years of learning.

English will come gradually.

The merits of each philosophy are argued by turn during school board meetings, especially in California, where 21 percent of the state’s school population speaks little or no English. Thirty percent of the state’s kindergarten classes is made up of non-English-speaking children.

In the Corona-Norco Unified School District, trustees Bill Hedrick and Jose Lalas convinced the rest of the school board to support the second philosophy as the ideal: that students need to continue with their studies in Spanish, at least in the primary grades, while they gradually acquire English skills.

“Knowledge is knowledge,” said Hedrick, a bilingual teacher in the Rialto Unified School District. “The language it is communicated in is not as important. Later, they will transfer that knowledge to English. “

As a way of recognizing a new focus on the state-recommended “primary language instruction,” Corona-Norco district officials designated Home Gardens Elementary and Jefferson Elementary schools in Corona as examples of how to go about it. Those schools have large numbers of pupils who speak little or no English and several teachers who are bilingual.

At those two schools, pupils who speak little or no English are taught basic subjects in their own language. Other schools in the district have some bilingual teachers, but they instruct classes primarily in English.

Parkridge Elementary School in northeast Corona was designated to try a modified version of the program, using English-speaking teachers, bilingual aides and teaching techniques that help get points across to pupils with a limited understanding of English.

Auburndale Intermediate School and Centennial High School, both in Corona, also are targets for the district under a plan worked out by a task force of educators.

“We’re trying to develop a model program,” Hedrick said. But with the budget problems that plague school districts, the reality is that the district can afford to focus on only a few schools.

“Unfortunately we take two steps forward and one step back,” he said.

The progress in this case, Hedrick said, is providing as much in the way of training and resources as financially possible to all the target schools. He said Home Gardens and Jefferson, which have the highest populations of non-English-speaking pupils in the district, have always offered excellent programs.

Typically at those two schools, teachers team up to make sure that Spanish-speaking pupils are keeping up with their academics in Spanish during the morning while brushing up on English skills in the afternoon.

Instruction in Spanish is concentrated in kindergarten, first and second grades, Jefferson Principal Anita LaVelle said. “By third grade, quite a few of the children are speaking English,” she said.

LaVelle and Home Gardens Principal George Wilcox said budget constraints have meant little in the way of extra resources for them this year, but they appreciate the school board’s moral support.

There have been noticeable changes at Parkridge Elementary School, Principal Paul Loesch said. He said non-English-speaking pupils start together in classes with a bilingual aide and a teacher who is either bilingual or trained in special teaching techniques to help get points across to non-English-speaking pupils.

Next, when they are more comfortable in English, they go to a transitional class and then on to a regular class. He said some pupils make the transition in a year. Some take longer.

Some people say that one, two or three years is too long to be operating mostly in Spanish. Richard Winn, a Corona resident who taught English as a second language to teen-agers and adults in the military, said 10 or 12 weeks of intensive study is all it takes to become reasonably fluent.

“Primary language instruction has a tendency to hold the children back, not get them into the mainstream quick enough,” he said.

Quick is not the point, said Steven Hovey, director of curriculum and instruction for the Riverside County Office of Education. “The target is to give them total education, so in later grades they achieve in all areas, including English,” he said.

Most districts in the county offer primary language instruction in the early elementary grades at least at a few schools, Hovey said, because it is recommended by state education officials.

At Edgemont Elementary in Moreno Valley, four classes are taught mostly in Spanish. Seven others are taught in English with translation for Spanish-speaking children from a bilingual classroom aide.

But even that is better than the old method of placing the children of recent immigrants into an English-speaking classroom and expecting them to pick up the language on their own.

“It resulted in parents and children not being able to communicate – people who lost their primary language,” Hovey said.

“Today we value bilingualism. “

That bilingualism goes both ways. English-speaking students in classrooms in which teachers switch into Spanish frequently are losing some English instruction. But Bea Garcia, coordinator of bilingual education in the Alvord Unified School District, said those students are gaining something in its place.

“It’s an enrichment,” she said of the Spanish spoken in class.

It is too soon to tell how children who started out as limited-English-speaking pupils at Corona-Norco’s pilot schools compare with those who happen to live within the boundaries of the other district elementary schools.

But several people involved say it has been well-accepted by children and parents.

Joyce Hays, who teaches English as a second language at Centennial High, reported a similar large turnout among parents of her 40 limited-English-speaking students.

She said supplies have been more available this year, and she has been encouraged to attend training conferences. “Attendance is good. They are hungry,” she said of her students. “It’s happening. “

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