Dual language program phases in English over several years

Little by little, San Antonio is adopting a dual language program that educators say is far superior to traditional forms of bilingual education.

It started in the San Antonio School District six years ago, and six school systems now offer dual language classes.

North East is the latest, creating a pilot program at Colonial Hills Elementary School for the next school year.

It will resemble dual language programs now in 13 elementary campuses in the Northside, Alamo Heights, San Antonio and Edgewood districts, where a select number of students receive a solid foundation in Spanish before they transition into English.

The first year, all instruction is in Spanish, and it gradually shifts so that by the fifth grade, half of the work is in Spanish and half is in English.

Also, roughly half the students are supposed to be native Spanish speakers and roughly half native English speakers, so the learning process becomes an exchange of cultures as well as a language lesson.

Students in Northside are completing the first year of a dual language pilot program at Esparza and Monroe May elementaries, and they already have a waiting list comprised mostly of monolingual English speakers, program director R.C. Rodriguez said.

He attributes the demand, in part, to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which made people more aware of the need to speak another language, he said.

But there are many reasons, he said, that more parents are discovering the merits of a truly bilingual education for their children.

At Esparza Elementary School, for example, the parents of many students want their children to speak Spanish so they can communicate with grandparents who do not speak English.

“My grandmother speaks a lot of Spanish,” 7-year-old Joshua Harpel said in his newly acquired Spanish. “She talked to me in Spanish, and I didn’t understand, so I came to Se?ora Garcia’s class.”

As he spoke, Harpel struggled at times to find the right words, and when he did, two of his classmates ? Kathie Hernandez and Jovan Lozano ? whispered in his ear to help him.

“Now I understand Spanish,” he said, “and I speak it with my grandfather and my grandmother.”

Such collaboration between native English and Spanish speakers is one of the advantages of the dual language program. Another is the overall impact it has on a student’s ability to learn.

Harpel is one of 13 in his class who spoke no Spanish at the start of the school year. That meant they had to pay close attention to his teacher, Irene Garcia, who is strict about upholding a Spanish-only rule in her classroom.

She has had to rely at times on gestures, pictures, theatrics, anything to help make her point without speaking English, but “the kids were more focused,” she said. “They gave you more eye contact. They were more alert.”

The end result, she said, is that her students have surpassed their peers academically, particularly in math. They are well beyond the first-grade level when it comes to addition, subtraction, even multiplication, she said.

In support of dual language programs, educators cite a study by George Mason University professors Virginia Collier and Wayne Thomas.

They examined standardized test scores of 700,000 students over a 10-year period and found that those in dual language classrooms did better than those receiving bilingual or English-as-a-second-language instruction.

But one of the best selling points, according to Emma Munguia of Edgewood, is to have parents come and see.

She likes to ask them if they think the children spoke English or Spanish to begin with. “And they are always floored.” She said. “‘It’s like, my gosh, you can’t tell the difference.'”

Given the benefits of a dual language education, the number of classes in Bexar County schools is still relatively small compared to other forms of bilingual education. One of the reasons is mobility, said Rosa Rabago of the San Antonio School District.

Students must start with the program early, and they must stay with it in subsequent years, but that degree of stability is difficult for many students.

Also, she said, it’s something parents must choose for their children, and “not everybody believes in the value of bilingualism.”

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