The Language Of Learning

Faced with a surge in Hispanic students, an elementary school marshals its resources.

TORRINGTON—This small city in the center of Litchfield County is not the sort of place where you would expect to capture a vision of America facing its new ethnic future, but that’s exactly what’s been happening at the Forbes Elementary School this year.

Last spring, as she was readying her plans for a new school year in the fall, Forbes Principal Josephine M. Radocchio realized that with Torrington’s Hispanic population exploding — the city experienced a 225 percent increase in Hispanic residents between 1990 and 2000 — the 600-student school faced a fall registration of 85 to 100 Spanish-speaking students, up from fewer than 15 the year before. Among Torrington’s five elementary schools, Forbes has the largest burden for bilingual education. Hispanic families moving north from Waterbury and New Haven have mostly settled into the Highwood Apartments in the west end of the city, which Forbes serves.

Most of these new students, Radocchio knew from surveys and educational journals, were the children of impoverished Caribbean and Latin American immigrants with little or no experience in school and illiterate in their native Spanish. Except for a limited English as a Second Language program that it shared with other schools, Forbes had nothing to offer these new students. Radocchio was also aware that her school’s sudden need for bilingual programs had arrived at an uncomfortable moment. Many states with large Hispanic populations have been rocked with strong political backlashes against bilingual programs. A ballot initiative in California has forced that state to replace bilingual programs with English “immersion” classes, and this month, the New York City Board of Education decided to offer parents a choice between bilingual education and English immersion.

“We knew that Forbes had to do something unusual,” Radocchio said. “Unlike other Connecticut cities, Torrington does not have a large Hispanic community for these kids to fall back on and they needed to be transitioned to English quickly. We also wanted to spread the benefits of bilingualism to all of our students.”

The principal hired Awilda Vega, an energetic, effusive native of Puerto Rico who has spent the past 13 years building her resume as a bilingual teacher, most recently in the Bridgeport schools. She already knew the emerging Hispanic community of Torrington well because she had been commuting north every weekend to attend the Iglesia Nuevo Naciniento church on Winsted Road. Vega quickly recruited several Spanish-speaking teacher’s aides from the Hispanic and native Torrington community and worked with Radocchio to develop a bilingual program at Forbes.

During a typically busy day last week, Vega began the morning in the cluttered but cheerful converted science lab that is now the base for Forbes’ bilingual program. While her team of five teacher’s aides worked with three separate kindergarten and upper-grade groups, Vega roamed from group to group.

After morning sessions in Spanish devoted to intensive basic skills –reading, writing and arithmetic — the bilingual students are then “mainstreamed” back into regular English-speaking classes for the afternoon, where teacher’s aides assist them if they run into trouble with their English.

“Of the 13 kindergartners who started with us in the fall, only two could speak English,” said teacher’s aide Christina Rodriguez.

“Now, all 13 are conversant in English and can understand everything that’s happening in their classrooms,” Rodriguez said. “That’s the key. Intensively reinforce basic learning in Spanish all morning, immerse them in English all afternoon. Once they know the word or concept in Spanish, they quickly transition the knowledge to English. It is so much fun watching children do this.”

Vega pointed out one first-grader, an 8-year-old Dominican immigrant, who joined the Forbes bilingual program after his family moved to Torrington just before Christmas.

“When Pablo arrived three months ago, he had never been to school,” Vega said. “He could speak only what we call ‘beginning sounds’ in Spanish. He spoke no English. Now, listen to this.”

Vega took down from her bookshelf a children’s book titled “Don’t Cut My Hair,” by Hans Wilhelm. The text is in English.

“Pablo! Venga, aqui,” Vega called across the room. Pablo, a cheerful boy with a bright smile, came skipping over and opened the book.

“I don’t want a haircut,” Pablo began reading. “I hate this.”

Reading with a pronounced accent but a strong fluency in English, Pablo quickly finished the book.

As she makes her rounds at Forbes, Vega is frequently stopped by white students, all of whom want to practice their Spanish or do a dance routine that she has taught them.

Vega is an advocate of “crossover education,” making her Spanish curriculum available to all students in the school. She is a certified drama teacher as well, and points out that a variety of studies have shown that native English-speaking children quickly accelerate in all subjects when exposed to art taught in a foreign language. Over the winter, Vega and her aides taught several mainstream grades in sculpture and dance, using Spanish.

“Here,” Vega said, stopping at a fifth-grade classroom. “This is Mrs.
(Kimberly) Budge’s class. I love this teacher and her kids. Just watch.”

Vega burst into the classroom, calling out to the students to join her in a dance. As the students jumped up from their reading exercise, Vega swayed her hips and moved her ams up and down, salsa-style.

“Adelante, un passo, atraz, salsa!” the fifth-graders laughed and called out as they joined Vega in the dance.

“Now,” Vega said, “Who can tell me what those words mean in English?”

Twenty fifth-grade hands went up at once, and the students recited the words together as they continued the salsa moves.

“Forward, one step, together, salsa!”

It’s the same story in Maureen Beach’s kindergarten class. She is so enthusiastic about the possibilities offered by bilingual education that all of her students sing, recite poems and count in both English and Spanish. Beach has gone back to school to learn Spanish and she and Vega are applying for bilingual grants together.

When Vega arrived, the kindergartners were practicing a poem, “Diez Amigos,” (“Ten Friends”). Then they all practiced counting to 10 in Spanish and English and sang “Hola” (“Oh Hello”) in both languages.

Andrew Baily, an earnest 5-year-old, spoke up.

“I’ll tell you what,” the kindergartner said. “That song is a lot better in Spanish than it is in English!”

“Whenever I get stuck on a Spanish word,” Beach said, “I ask one of my kindergarten students, Jennifer Ortiz, to help me. She’s getting better in English while I’m getting better in Spanish. And please, do remember that name. Jennifer Ortiz is going to take on the world.”

Her rounds finished, Vega returned to her third-floor bilingual headquarters. She is particularly pleased by the contributions of one of her bilingual teacher’s aides, Omar Amador, 19. Amador moved from Puerto Rico to Torrington a year ago to join family members and enrolled as a communications major at Northwest Community College in Winsted. He works at Forbes three days a week, coaching students in English.

As he worked with his group, several fourth- and fifth-grade students poked their heads in the door, hoping to catch a snippet or two of Spanish on their way down to get their buses.

“It’s wonderful what’s happening here at Forbes — everyone has welcomed us Spanish-speakers,” Amador said. “Last week, in the men’s room, a fifth-grader came up to me and said, ‘Hey, Omar, I’ll pay you ten bucks if you teach me Spanish!”‘

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