Dallas school officials have proposed a major revamping of the district’s bilingual education efforts with a “two-way” program designed to produce children who are functional in Spanish and English.
The program would put Spanish-speaking and English-speaking students in the same classroom and challenge them to learn each other’s language while also studying math, history and other subjects.
Currently, students in the Dallas Independent School District who are learning English as a second language are merged as quickly as possible into English-only classes.
Administrators also proposed last week that elementary school students begin learning Spanish for one period each day.
The goal of the changes is to produce graduates who can function in both languages so they will have more opportunities in an increasingly global economy – regardless of which language they learned at home.
The program was presented to a Dallas school board committee last week and probably will be brought back to the board later if board approval is needed for grants or other actions.
The proposal comes as officials try to manage a district in which about 53,000 students are learning English as a second language. More than half the students in Dallas schools are Hispanic.
Although such programs are offered in San Francisco, Boston and other cities, educators cautioned that the program could be controversial and cannot be launched overnight.
It would require patience, a strong commitment from parents and recruitment of more bilingual teachers in an already tough market, the educators said.
No one would be forced to participate in the new program, which would be offered only at schools where it has been approved by parents, said Dr. Rosita Apodaca, the deputy superintendent who oversees language programs.
“If parents want it and teachers support it, it will happen,” said Dr. Apodaca, who as a child learned English as a second language. “You can’t dictate, you can’t coerce, and it never comes to fruition without support.
“It is ambitious, and it is hard work,” Dr. Apodaca said. “We will need to start small and do it well.”
In two-way language programs, she said, schools use a mixture of textbooks – some written in Spanish and others in English. Students might spend the morning learning math in Spanish and the afternoon learning social studies in English.
Schools also will have other choices, such as continuing current language education programs and introducing elementary school Spanish classes, which currently are not taught anywhere in the district.
Hispanic civic leaders said they support the two-way proposal, but they had questions about how it would be implemented and how well it would work.
“We cannot make these kids guinea pigs,” said Alfredo Carrizales, who serves on the education committee for the North Texas chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
“You have to give them credit for coming up with ideas,” Mr. Carrizales said. “I want to know the flip side. Are kids learning across-the-board? This brings up a slew of questions.”
Mauricio Navarro, who oversees the Partners in Education program for the Greater Dallas Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said the district should strive to produce bilingual students, but its first responsibility should be to make sure students have solid English skills.
“It is a proven fact: If you know two languages, you have a better chance,” Mr. Navarro said. “It will be real interesting to see how the community reacts to the program.”
Dr. Apodaca said the first step is to meet with administrators and parents at individual schools, explain the program and see whether they are interested. Strategies for financing and implementing the program are still being worked out.
The program probably would start off small at a few elementary schools in about a year, she said. If there is continued demand, the district might expand the program to middle and high schools, she said.
Dallas school board trustee Kathleen Leos welcomed the push to revamp language education in the district.
“The major change is emphasis [on improving bilingual education programs],” Ms. Leos said. “The programs out there are inconsistent and watered down.
“The world is not an all English-speaking world,” she said. “The Southwest region is going to be a global economy. The more tools we give to our children, the more successful they will be.”
Dr. Donna Christian, president of the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C., said the number of districts using two-way programs grew from 30 in 1987 to 266 in 1998. Although Spanish is the most common two-way program, Korean, Japanese and Portuguese are also taught.
Parents will have to be patient because it takes time for a student to become fluent in a second language, she said.
“We know to be fully functional in a language takes six to nine years,” Dr. Christian said.
Fred Genesee, a professor at McGill University in Montreal who has studied two-way education for almost 30 years, said the technique has repeatedly proved its merit.
“Children were born with the capacity to learn language. It is almost impossible to stop a child from learning language,” he said. “It is not as big a leap as you might think.”