Bilingual Education: Cesar Chavez School

First tongue used as path to English: Advocates say method keeps students from falling behind

Kathleen Leclair’s classroom at San Jose’s Cesar Chavez School is decorated with alphabet strips and posters — all in Spanish.

Her first-graders spend most of their day learning to read and write in their native language — Spanish. The remaining half-hour, they speak only English.

Each year, as their mastery of English grows, fewer of their lessons will be in Spanish. By the fifth grade, almost all will be in English.

This is the sort of instruction that Ron Unz and other critics of bilingual education want all but eliminated in California — a state where every fourth student does not speak English fluently. Fewer than a third of those students are enrolled in one of the state’s many types of bilingual programs.

Supporters of Unz’s proposed initiative argue that too few of the students who are taught in their native language are mastering English.

“Enormous numbers of California schoolchildren today leave years of schooling with limited spoken English and almost no ability to read or write English,” Unz says on his World Wide Web site.

Just as adamantly, bilingual supporters like Leclair argue that teaching students in their native language is the best strategy for keeping them from falling behind in the rest of their studies as they struggle to master English.

The lessons may be in Spanish, Leclair says, but the ultimate goal: “We want them to learn English.”

Spelling lesson

Leclair is introducing a new book “La Fiesta Los Monstrous” (The Monsters’ Party) to the group today. After reading several passages as the children follow along, she pulls out a small white magnetic board with rainbow colored plastic letters. Covering the book’s title, she asks them in Spanish, “Can you spell ‘monster?’ “

She sounds out the word, emphasizing the “mmmm,” “onnnn” and “ssss” sounds. The children mimic her sounds, then one boy’s face lights up and he selects the letters ‘m’ and ‘o.’ Others follow suit and sound out the letters until the word is spelled correctly.

The theory behind this approach is that once students have mastered a skill such as reading in one language, they can easily transfer that skill to a second.

This year, Leclair is sharing teaching duties with Raquel Dequiroz, who takes the students two days a week. The same strategies they are using to help their students tackle new words and stories in Spanish — sounding out words, looking for familiar letters and using pictures as prompts — will also be useful when they begin reading in English, Leclair says.

Laura Lopez, whose son Victor is in the class, says she likes the approach the teachers are taking. It’s the same style of instruction her older daughter, Rachel, experienced in first grade last year.

While it’s important her children learn English, Lopez said in Spanish, she doesn’t want them to lose their native tongue.

Bilingual education works for her children, she said: “They get both (languages).”

At other schools, native language instruction may come in a different package. The bilingual program at San Jose Unified’s Schallenberger School, for example, combines students who are fluent in English and those who speak little of the language in the same room with a teacher who addresses them in both languages. The goal is that all students will speak Spanish and English fluently by fifth grade.

Indeed, educators take so many different approaches that it’s difficult to come up with a single definition of a bilingual program. Still, the underlying theory is universal: Teaching students in their native language builds on knowledge they already bring to the classroom.

“Our basic grammatical structure is defined by the age of 3 or 3 1/2. Children have several thousand vocabulary words by the time they enter school,” said Reynaldo Macias, a professor of education at the University of California-Santa Barbara and director of the UC Linguistic Minority Research Institute. “(Native language instruction) simply builds on that knowledge.”

Schallenberger Principal Carol Garcia likes to say “Eventually these kids have to be transferred to English. It’s better if it’s done early, rather than later.”

At Chavez, where most students receive Spanish instruction through fifth grade, first-grade children in bilingual classes break into groups for English instruction. After lunch, Leclair’s students march dutifully to one of three classrooms for their 30 minutes of English.

It’s an intriguing transformation. Students who spent most of their morning speaking animatedly in Spanish are suddenly shouting and yelling in English.

Ren? Sanchez, who works with six of Leclair’s students, said he is already seeing gains. Bashful students who had to be prodded to use English in September now offer complex explanations for why they should be the ones allowed to pass out new books or papers.

It’s Sanchez’s job to help the students feel comfortable with the new language and to take the little bits and pieces they’ve picked up on the playground, on television or in the supermarket and teach them how to use the words and phrases properly. Once they’re comfortable with English, he says, they can begin learning grammar and reading.

Chavez has used this approach for only a few years, so data on its effectiveness is scarce. Yet teachers remain confident those who make it through the entire program will succeed. In Leclair’s room, for example, students who struggled to write simple words in September are now writing sentences.

District of challenges

No one denies the challenges faced by Chavez and its district, though. The Alum Rock School District has been mired in political turmoil for years and teachers say shifts in administration have made it difficult to coordinate programs. It has more students who speak little English than any other district in Santa Clara County and 65 percent of them are taught in their native language, predominantly Spanish.

Alum Rock students are among the poorest in the state. They rarely stay in one school long enough to complete a program of instruction. Only 30 percent of the children who start kindergarten at Chavez, for instance, are expected to still be enrolled at the school by fifth grade.

Statistics show that fewer Alum Rock students than the state average are reclassified each year from limited-English speakers to “Fluent English Proficient.” Statewide, 6.7 percent of the students who started school speaking little or no English are moved into the fluent category annually. In Alum Rock, that number ranges from 7 percent at some schools to zero at others.

Sharon Groves, who coordinates instructional programs for the district, acknowledges the low numbers, but she said statistics don’t tell the entire story. She noted the number of reclassified Alum Rock students more than doubled last year even though the district raised the test score to qualify.

Groves contended that districts with higher rates often have lower numbers of non-English speaking students who tend to move around less, so they receive more consistent education.

“It’s not an excuse,” she said, “it’s a reality.”

Standardized test scores also show that at some Alum Rock schools, Spanish-speaking students tend to do as well as or better than English-speaking students in math, reading and language — an indication that while students have not yet mastered English, they are not falling behind in other academic areas, Groves said.

Nevertheless, proponents acknowledge that there is room for improvement in bilingual education.

“When the program is done right with a qualified teacher, then it can mean a good education for all students,” said Paula Acree, a bilingual research teacher at Schallenberger.

Dearth of teachers

But just finding qualified bilingual teachers is often an impossible task. State department of education officials estimate California needs more than 20,000 additional bilingual teachers to serve all of its limited English students.

Even in Alum Rock, which has long been committed to bilingual instruction, the shortage of qualified bilingual teachers makes it impossible for the district to offer native language instruction to all students. So, many students find themselves in English-only classrooms.

The native language those children are in danger of losing could prove a valuable asset in the future, said Mary Jew, who recently was hired to coordinate Alum Rock’s bilingual programs.

“In Silicon Valley, how many companies want just English-only employees?” Jew said. “The world is different now. Kids come from all backgrounds, and it would be sad not to be able to maintain the languages of these kids.”

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