“Buenos dias,” says the teacher, and the kindergartners respond in kind. Then the youngsters begin their day’s work, identifying pictures as rojo and azul, and occasionally asking to go to the bano. But it is not a typical bilingual class for Spanish-speaking children. In fact, none of the 22 students in the class speaks Spanish — that is, none did until now.


The class in Detroit’s Fairbanks Elementary School is an experiment in reverse bilingualism. The children in the class will be taught everything — reading, math, science and social studies — exclusively in Spanish. Teacher Lydia Engels doesn’t even speak English to parents when their children are present — whether the parents understand or not. English will creep into classes in the second grade, but the students will continue with Spanish through the fifth grade.


The Fairbanks language-immersion program, the only one of its kind in the 200,000-student Detroit system, is a counterpart to the bilingual education provided for more than 1,500 Hispanic students in the city. Director of bilingual education Jaime de la Isla argues that the principle behind such instruction — “bridging the social isolation between the cultures” — must now be applied to English-speaking children as well. Educators have also come to believe that learning a foreign language can help a child understand his own. Research from the St. Lambert School Experiment in Montreal, for example, has shown that children in the bilingual-immersion program there learned English grammar better by first learning the structure and conjugation of French. And results from a similar effort in Milwaukee, where students learn in Spanish, French and German in magnet schools, suggest that average English-speaking students taught in a foreign language eventually perform better on standardized reading tests.


Students are not selected for the Fairbanks class because of any special aptitude for languages, although all had at least average scores on comprehension tests. The only qualification is that the students’ parents must agree to leave them in the program for six years. The parents also commit themselves to eight hours of workshops at the school each week so they can reinforce the language at home. Though some parents and school officials opposed the language program for fear of confusing the children, it was parental demand that first brought about the project. Fairbanks, a school of about 266 pupils in a deteriorating neighborhood, had been losing enrollment; programs like the language class and computer education became inducements to stay.


Challenge: So far, families who chose the bilingual class seem pleased. “I had a neighbor ask me why I was stepping out of my league,” says Mary Ferguson, whose granddaughter Sha’-Keva is in the class. “Wasn’t it enough for her to learn English? I say it is a challenge. If learning a language can help her find a job or advance her education, this program will be a major success.” Ferguson herself has enrolled in a refresher Spanish course at a local community college. Pamela Rooker says that she has noticed a favorable change in her son Ronald since he has been in the bilingual class. “He used to spend time dancing like Michael Jackson and talking like Mr. T,” she says. “Now he has an identity of his own, something special the other kids in the neighborhood don’t have, and he feels proud that he can teach them.”


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