1 classroom, 2 languages

Dual approach gaining popularity in public schools

West Phoenix mother Erika Rivera says she grew up in the era when Mexican-American children were discouraged from speaking Spanish.

Now she’s a gate agent for America West Airlines and frequently calls upon her limited Spanish to answer passenger questions.

“When my daughter was born, I said she had to learn Spanish,” Rivera said.

“Knowing a second language is so important. You can’t look through the want ads without seeing “bilingual preferred.’ ”

So this school year, Rivera is driving daughter Erika-Jasmine, now 6, to a public school in central Phoenix that offers “dual-language immersion.”

The program, new this year at William T. Machan Elementary, allows kids to spend half the day in a room with a teacher who speaks in English and the other half in a room with a Spanish-speaking teacher.

And half of Erika-Jasmine’s classmates are native speakers of English, while the others speak Spanish.

The goal for pupils in Machan’s eight dual-language classes is to become fluent — and able to read and write — in both languages in elementary school, rather than waiting for high school to start foreign-language classes.

“Dual language is a good idea,” said John Schilling, Arizona Department of Education chief of policy and planning.

“Kids need to know how to read and write English in order to be successful. But it’s a misperception that the department does not think the opportunity to learn two languages is important.”

He is helping state Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan sort through the myriad programs that non-English-speaking children encounter in Arizona public schools.

As the debate over bilingual education rages, dual-language seems to be one program that people on all sides embrace.

One reason is that it is voluntary — parents must sign their children up for programs. Machan even has a waiting list of children whose parents want them in dual-language.

Another plus is that dual-language classes do not isolate Spanish-speaking children, but combine them with English speakers so children can tutor and learn from each other.

“I speak English to my parents and Spanish with my friends and sometimes to my little brother,” explained fourth-grader Avant Brown, who is 9 and in a dual-language program at Valley View Elementary near South Mountain.

His classmate since kindergarten, 9-year-old Rita Gonzalez, speaks Spanish at home and on the playground plus excellent English in class.

“I want to be bilingual so I can be a doctor and help people,” she explained.

At least eight Arizona school districts have dual-language instruction programs.

Machan Elementary started its program this year with a $1 million five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Mountain View Elementary in Sunnyslope received a $1.6 million grant.

The schools are expected to set up studies of their programs and have them evaluated by independent researchers.

The challenge, said Valley View Elementary Principal John Wann, is finding enough bilingual teachers to fill the classrooms.

Valley View’s program differs from Machan’s in that children spend all day with one bilingual teacher. The program is so popular that parents drive from as far as Ahwatukee and north central Phoenix to enroll their kids in it.

“Some people question it,” said an Ahwatukee mother, who requested that her name not be printed because she is fed up with those who challenge her desire to have bilingual children.

“Valley View has all the aspects I would want in a small private school. Classes are small, and by the time they leave, my children will be bi-literate in Spanish and English.”

Josue Gonzalez, director of Arizona State University’s Center for Bilingual Education and Research, wonders whether the controversy over teaching children in Spanish could have been avoided if dual-language programs were the norm.

“Traditional programs separate kids out, and we have now learned that that is not a good idea,” he said.

“Dual-language programs really work better — English-speaking kids and Spanish-speaking kids are mixed and learn each other’s languages.”

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Cathryn Creno can be reached at 444-8056 or at [email protected] via e-mail.

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