Learning the basics, and English

AH: Bay school melds native language, hands-on work


EAST PALO ALTO—The buildings are rundown and depressing, the students come from poor families. But inside the classroom at Cesar Chavez Academy, a renaissance is under way.

For the first time in more than five years, students are reading at grade level and protesting when asked to put down their books.

“The new bilingual program we have here, called the Spanish Literacy Program, is not perfect,” said Principal Ruth Woods. “But look at our students and look at test scores and there’s no question this is working where other programs have failed.”

In 1994, desperate to improve Latino students’ abysmal scores, teachers and administrators virtually rewrote class schedules, teaching traditions and techniques.

“It was clear we had to do something immediately,” said second-grade teacher Gaelyn Mason, who oversees the school’s bilingual program. “We had intelligent children who just weren’t learning and it was because of how we were teaching.”

The school was undergoing enormous demographic changes. In 1986, what was then called Ravenswood Middle School was about 85 percent African American and 5 percent Latino. Today the school is 75 percent Latino and 5 percent African American. Eighty-five percent of the kindergarten through eighth-grade students have limited ability to speak English.

Just four years ago, most teachers delivered lessons only in English, when possible using a Spanish-speaking aide as a translator.

“With a school like ours, it just doesn’t work to do English immersion,” Mason said. “The only people they would hear speak English were their teachers. They speak Spanish on the playground, at home and in their communities.”

Spanish-speaking students now split their day between teaching teams, learning subjects such as science, reading and math in Spanish, then switch to another teacher to work on oral English. In the third grade, students add reading lessons in English.

“My second-grade kids who started here in kindergarten are now reading past grade level and transitioning to English on their own, in second grade,” Mason said. “I used to teach fourth grade and my students couldn’t read in Spanish or in English.”

While the program’s emphasis on teaching students in their native language is not original, it is creative in the way it stretches limited teaching resources.

In one first-grade classroom, 20 students spend part of the morning with Jennifer Chavez, 23, a Stanford graduate who is fluent in Spanish and working on her bilingual teaching credential.

Chavez, standing at the chalkboard, writes sentences in Spanish and students are asked, in Spanish, whether the sentence structure is correct.

After a break, the kids turn to “El sol y la luna,” the district’s Spanish bilingual textbook. Next it’s time for math. Students shuffle to the shelves to retrieve their neatly stacked books, “Exploraciones matematicas.”

Later in the morning, the students, all Latino and Spanish-speakers, move to Carolyn Everson’s classroom. A group of Spanish speaking first -graders leave Everson’s class to spend the rest of the day with Chavez.

Everson, a recent graduate of UC-Berkeley, speaks only English and is working on a cross-cultural teaching credential, which will enable her to better teach limited-English students.

She posts colorful drawings of a bank, gas station and hardware store, then asks students to name items sold in a hardware store. When no one answers and heads begin to droop, Everson picks up a hammer and nails. Slowly enunciating her words and holding up the hammer, she asks, “Would you pick up a hammer at the hardware store?”

At this, the students smile, nod and repeat the words in English.

Everson said that using props to convey ideas and “survival English” is more effective than immersing students in the language.

“How would you do if you walked into a classroom at 5 years old and didn’t speak a word of English?” she asked. “How would school look to you?”

Both Chavez’s and Everson’s classrooms are stocked with Spanish bilingual textbooks and displays. Numbers taped to the walls above the chalkboard are in Spanish and English. Brightly painted cut-out farm animals are pasted around the rooms. The pig, “cerdo,” is next to the chicken “gallina.” Nearby is the cow, ” baca” and the sheep, “oveja.”

The students are expected to be proficient in English by the end of the fourth grade and move into mainstream English classes by the fifth grade, Mason said.

Through the eighth grade, students spend at least one hour a day studying in Spanish.

“We don’t want our kids to lose their Spanish,” Mason said. “We want them to graduate from the eighth grade and be bilingual, bicultural and biliterate.”

In spring 1994, Chavez Academy students posted strong scores on the California Learning Assessment Systems (CLAS) tests, outperforming others in the district and throughout the state with similar poverty levels and numbers of English-learners.

Although the state subsequently dropped the CLAS test, Chavez students who took the Spanish-language equivalent of the California Test of Basic Skills in 1995 and 1996 performed above average in all subjects, showing steady gains.

Mason doesn’t need test scores to know her kids are learning.

“They read anything they can get their hands on,” she said. “Everyone in my room is reading above grade level in Spanish and some are reading in English. It’s really exciting to see the kids’ enthusiasm. They literally can’t get enough of books. It’s amazing, I have to call a stop and they keep reading. I certainly didn’t have that before.”

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