A lollipop and a piece of taffy made their way through a group of kindergartners studying the concept of weight: light and heavy.
“What’s pesado?” inquired Chianda Young, parroting a word she heard a Spanish-speaking student use.
Her teacher moved her hands up and down, as if they were burdened by a large weight. Just then, a second child piped in with the answer: “Heavy.”
The teacher nods: “Pesado.”
The youngsters were learning math and language that afternoon as part of the Omaha School District’s dual-language program at Marrs Elementary School in south Omaha.
The program puts English- and Spanish-speaking children together in the classroom and splits the amount of time the children are taught in each of the languages.
Half the time, the kindergartners learn in Spanish under the direction of bilingual teacher Irma Franco – “Senora Franco,” or maestra, to her students. Half the time, they learn in English under teacher Phyllis Christiansen, “Mrs. Christiansen.”
The program – the first of its kind in the state – is designed to make both the English and Spanish speakers bilingual and biliterate by the time they finish sixth grade.
The approach has been hailed by both former U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley and Nebraska Education Commissioner Doug Christensen, as well as local school officials.
“(The students) are doing more than we ever thought they could do,” said Marrs Principal Pam Cohn.
Kindergartner Domonique Jones proved that point waiting for his mother last week as she talked with another woman after school.
“Uno mas,” Domonique said, interrupting the conversation to show his Spanish-speaking skills.
“That means one more moment,” his mother, Liz Jones, explained.
“No,” Domonique corrected, “one piece.”
His mother remarked: “He’s only five. You wouldn’t think he’d pick it up as fast as he does.”
The school district began planning for the dual-language program last year after receiving a federal grant. Administrators decided to try the program at Marrs, where about 68 percent of the children are Hispanic – up from 45 percent three years ago.
The district was interested in the approach because research shows that it is the most effective way to teach students who don’t speak English well,
said Susan Mayberger, who heads the district’s English-as-a-Second-Language program.
At the same time, the classes offer enrichment to the English-speaking students who want to learn a second language.
The district hopes to expand the dual-language option to other elementary schools and offer the program through senior high.
The challenge, Mayberger said, will be finding bilingual teachers.
At Marrs, 60 students are enrolled in the program – 30 kindergartners and 30 first-graders. Each grade level has two adjacent classrooms and two teachers, one of whom is bilingual.
The students move back and forth between the teachers and rooms.
In one classroom, only English is spoken and taught.
The letters of the alphabet are posted on the wall for the kindergartners,
illustrated by words and pictures. Laminated bears float above a bulletin board with brightly colored balloons identified by color – red, blue, green.
The room next door is Spanish only.
The letters of the alphabet hang on the wall, identified by pictures and words like telefono (telephone) and vestido (dress). In this room, the colors of the bears’ brightly colored balloons are in Spanish – rojo, azul,
At these early ages, the focus is on helping the children become familiar with both languages and on teaching the children target vocabulary words,
letters and numbers. In third grade, they will begin to learn reading and writing in the second language.
Parents must sign a contract agreeing to keep their child in the program through the sixth grade if they want the child to become bilingual. Parents also must volunteer for 10 hours at the school and read with their child in both languages each night.
The parental involvement has been a key part of the program, with families attending celebrations at the school about every six weeks. The school has a family resource center, where parents can gather and check out books and computer programs to practice language skills.
In the kindergarten class, students get a dose of each language in the morning. They work at “centers” designed with a focus such as math, science,
computers and reading – some in Spanish and some in English.
For much of the morning, the children separate, depending on what is their native language.
That’s so the children can focus on language arts and reading in their first language – building a firm foundation so they can learn the second language more quickly.
The children mix up again in the afternoon, learning Spanish and English songs during lunch.
Later, divided into the two classrooms, students work with teachers on a theme or unit. The same lesson is taught in both rooms at the same time,
though in different languages.
The focus of a lesson last week was Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and the children heard the story before acting it out.
Gustavo Ayala, a Spanish-speaker in the English-speaking room, played the part of Baby Bear. “Somebody eating my porridge and ate it all,” he said.
In the Spanish-speaking room, Lane Chapman pretended to be Goldilocks and curled up on Baby Bear’s bed.
“Perfecto,” she proclaimed.
The next day, Lane would go to the English-speaking room for a lesson and Gustavo to the Spanish-speaking one.
The teachers, who put in hours after school writing curriculum and coordinating their classes, do not repeat lessons. They review and move on,
using some repetition to get across the key words and concepts but always building on the day before.
In class, the children help each other. The Spanish-speakers generally are better at the English because of their constant exposure to it.
They’re quick to translate for their English-speaking friends.
“My students want to translate all the time,” Franco said. “They think they’re helping, but they’re being told: ‘No, no.'”
Teachers and parents in the program have been excited by what they have seen the children achieve.
The Spanish-speaking students pick up concepts and improve their language skills much more quickly because they have heard it in their own language first.
Parent Charo Rangel said the class helps her 5-year-old daughter, Charito,
retain her Spanish-speaking skills while learning to read and write in both languages.
Rangel and her husband had worried when Charito entered preschool because she quit speaking Spanish even though the family speaks only Spanish at home.
“It was all English, no Spanish,” Rangel said. “Now we see her going back and forth at a faster rate and going on with her Spanish.”
The accomplishments of the English-speaking students also have been a source of surprise.
One English-speaker learned her colors in Spanish before she learned them in English.
Domonique’s mother can’t believe what her son has learned.
“He’ll be in his room singing songs in Spanish,” she said. “He’ll be telling me stories in Spanish. He didn’t know a lick of Spanish before.”
Franco said another mother described having this conversation with her son:
“She asked him, “Were you good in school?’ and he said, “A little bit,'”
“She asked him, “What do you mean a little bit?’ He said, “Poquito.'”
Poquito is Spanish for a little bit.