In the eight years she has been a student in the Inter-American Magnet School, blond, blue-eyed Shannon O’Malley has shaped Inca palaces out of clay, recited her multiplication tables in Mayan and compared her Near North Side neighborhood to a Hopi village.

She also has become fluent in Spanish.

“Spanish is great,” says the 7th grader. “It’s easy to learn. It will help me get a better job when I grow up.”

Since kindergarten, Shannon has been part of a teaching experiment now being tried in at least four Chicago schools and 18 public school districts around the country. Although the teaching varies from school to school, the principle is the same: Children spend all or part of their days in classes conducted entirely in a language other than English.

Programs like those at Inter-American, 919 W. Barry Ave., are taking bilingual education beyond the traditional approach of teaching English to immigrant children. Operating on the premise that the ability to speak a foreign language is becoming a marketable skill and a national resource, these schools are now making native-born American children fluent in foreign languages.

“It’s a whole different kind of concept,” says Janet Nolan, program developer for the school. “It’s not a bilingual school as such. It’s teaching done in two languages and two cultures. It’s a cut above the rest.”

Traditional bilingual programs use native-language instruction only until a student is ready for a regular classroom, usually a period of three years.

At Inter-American, Spanish and English are taught in equal doses. Students are encouraged, in fact, to speak Spanish. Those “caught” doing so win ribbons and prizes.

By 8th grade, teachers hope all their students, regardless of ethnic background, will attain proficiency in both languages. Parents are banking on it.

“These are international times,” says Shannon’s mother, Joan. “In any field Shannon decides to enter, she’ll need a second language. It can only make her a better person.”

Many parents agree. Inter-American, which also offers a language program for preschoolers, turns away 400 applicants a year as career-oriented parents seek to enroll their children. The school’s 600 students are reading at or above grade level and are achieving significantly above grade level in math and social studies.

“The smart money is on Inter-American,” says school board President George Munoz. “I predict those children are going to be the world leaders of tomorrow.”

As Americans begin to appreciate the value of being bilingual, experts predict that more schools will begin offering foreign language options earlier, different from the usual classes taught in high school.

Inter-American’s approach is used in New York City and Baton Rouge, where children study history and government in French. In Culver City, Calif., they learn their multiplication tables in Spanish. Classes are taught in German in Milwaukee, Cantonese in San Francisco and Arabic in Detroit.

“People have got to accept the fact that we cannot be a world leader if we maintain a parochial attitude toward different cultures,” Munoz says.

In Chicago, Sabin, Kanoon and Salazar grade schools are building strong Spanish language programs. The department of multilingual education for Chicago’s public schools has plans for three more.

“Even Santa Claus is bilingual here,” says Lourdes Lopez, principal of Sabin, in the Humboldt Park neighborhood.

Schools like Inter-American have refocused the debate over bilingual education, going beyond the charge that teaching immigrant students in a language other than English hinders their progress and undermines the primacy of English.

“We have evolved away from the issue of politics,” Nolan says. “We are now saying that language is something positive. It is not something you discard, forget, leave behind.

“In transitional programs, kids become confused, and their native language is seen as something negative. Here, we look at language differently. We’re saying Spanish is as important as English. That’s what bilingual education should be about.”

The 30 kindergarten students filing into the classroom bright with wall decorations in two languages chatter in Spanish. Minutes before, they had been speaking English. After their morning break, however, Spanish is the order of the day.

In Ana Bensinger’s classroom, books are replaced with libros, desks with escritorios and the teacher with la professora. Bensinger asks her students to quietly form a semicircle in front of her.

“Silencio, por favor,” she instructs, pressing an index finger to her lips.

Five-year-old Jay Forrester quickly takes his place in the group. Although he spoke not a word of Spanish in September, he can now repeat Bensinger’s command with ease.

“Silencio,” he whispers to a noisy neighbor. “Silencio, por favor.”

When asked who taught him Spanish, Jay replies, “La senora Bensinger.”

Upstairs, children listen to Portuguese music, plan a two-week trip to Mexico, learn about Cuban freedom fighter Jose Marti and study the body’s circulatory system in Spanish.

In addition to regular public school courses, teachers at the school integrate the history, language and culture of North, South and Central America into their curriculum. Gradually, they increase the amount of foreign language instruction.

In the early grades, children spend half the day in an all-English classroom, then switch to a classroom where the teachers speak to them only in Spanish. Students are allowed to speak in either language, but teachers always respond in the classroom tongue.

In upper grades, teachers spend half a class speaking in English and the other half in Spanish, or move back and forth between the two.

About 60 percent of the school’s students are Hispanic. Many were enrolled by parents who do not have the time to teach their children Spanish, but who do not want them growing up without knowing how to read, write and speak it.

About 30 percent of the students are non-Hispanic children who do not speak Spanish, while the remaining 10 percent are black and other minorities.

All but 3 of the school’s 34 teachers have put their own children in the school, as have many leading bilingual educators in Chicago. In contrast, nearly 40 percent of Chicago’s public school teachers enroll their children in private schools, according to a study by the Chicago Reporter, an urban affairs newsletter.

Nolan, one of the school’s founders, says parents are the backbone of Inter-American. Parents are responsible for founding the school and for picking its principal and many of the teachers, and they are intimately involved in its operation.

On any given day, several parents visit classrooms and help teachers. They are known as a “feisty” but respected group whose members do not hesitate to speak their minds at board headquarters.

In 1975, the school’s founders, many of whom have traveled abroad or are married to people born in other countries, asked the Chicago Board of Education to establish a bilingual preschool for the North Side, one that would include Spanish as part of the curriculum for English-speaking children and one that would foster parallel learning in two languages.

State guidelines for bilingual education exclude English-speaking children, however, so they were ineligible for bilingual funds. But the group persevered, and the school was opened on a shoestring budget with 15 preschool children.

In 1978, the school received funding from the desegregation program, Access to Excellence. Because of increasing interest among parents, Inter- American expanded rapidly, moving from a small two-classroom annex to a larger building at 851 W. Waveland Ave. and finally to its present location.

Nolan, who has two daughters at Inter-American, says she originally had doubts.

“I thought they might fall behind in other subjects, that I might be using them as guinea pigs for my own ideals,” Nolan says. But during a recent family vacation in Costa Rica, her faith in the program was cemented.

“When I saw my daughters fitting in so well, I was convinced. My children are really bicultural and biliterate,” she says.

“Bilingualism has always carried the connotation of being a remedial program,” Nolan says. “That’s a bad way to look at what is really an advantage: speaking a second language.”

Nolan says learning a second language helps build confidence in students and an appetite for learning. Recently, eight of the school’s 8th graders began tackling a third language, French.

The young immigrants Chicago area schools are struggling to teach non-English-speaking children from all over the world. This is one in a series of reports on how well schools meet the challenge.

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