Educators Are Discovering 2 Languages Better Than 1

In the eyes of any budding 1st-grade artist, the true essence of a creative masterpiece sometimes involves the delicate use of a purple crayon. It’s that simple: purple or nothing.

So instead of Joseph Amar enlisting the help of his teacher to find the coveted shade of purple, he asked his neighbor if he could borrow her crayon once she finished. Yadira Rodriguez gave a quick nod of acceptance and continued coloring her own work of art.

This common act of sharing symbolizes and celebrates something unusual at Oak Terrace School in Highwood.

Oak Terrace, 240 Prairie Ave., is one of two schools in the North Shore District 112 that offers a dual-language program. Children in the program have the same curriculum as their peers in traditional English-speaking classrooms, but learn all subjects such as math, science, social studies, art and music using a mix of Spanish and English.

“The program allows the teachers and pupils to speak, read and write in English and Spanish throughout the entire day, every day and all year long,” said Melissa Wolf, dual-language coordinator for the district. “We have a large and growing Spanish-speaking student population. And we wanted to find a way to emphasize and encourage the use and understanding of both languages and cultures. We thought, this was a great way to start accomplishing that goal.

“Plus, being bilingual is a skill employers are looking for in their future employees. It’s a positive situation all around.”

The dual-language classes are composed of an equal number of English- and Spanish-speaking children. So although Joseph–who asked for the crayon in English–comes from an English-speaking family and Yadira lives in a predominantly Spanish-speaking home, the program has helped them and others communicate with each other without the help of a teacher or a lengthy explanation.

Wolf said the pupils assist each other with understanding each others’ language and mastering a new one.

“Instead of one teacher, we have about 20 teachers in the class,” she said.

The program, which began in the fall of 1996, was offered to incoming kindergartners at Oak Terrace and Red Oak School, 530 Red Oak Lane, Highland Park. Between the two schools, 105 pupils are involved, Wolf said. The district serves over 4,000 pupils from kindergarten through 8th grade.

“For a long time, the trend in education was to separate the primarily Spanish-speaking students from their English-speaking peers until the Spanish students had a better command of English,” said Ty Belmont, an Oak Terrace 1st-grade bilingual teacher. “At one point as educators, we were asking students to rid themselves of their Spanish. But with this program, it is about language and culture immersion. No one language is better than the other. And more importantly, it allows the students to interact in ways they hadn’t before.”

Wolf said the goal is to continue the program so the pupils who have been enrolled since its inception can go through the 5th grade learning in a mixed-language atmosphere. The district also has discussed plans of expanding the dual-language program through 8th grade.

Next year, Sherwood School, 1900 Stratford Rd., Highland Park, will offer a kindergarten dual-language class, Wolf said. Currently, there is a kindergarten, 1st- and 2nd-grade class at Oak Terrace. Red Oak has a kindergarten and 1st-grade class.

Wolf said the outcome of the program is being measured by monitoring the pupils’ progress and a growing waiting list of families interested in enrolling their children in the limited classroom space.

Jonathan White knows the importance of communication in the classroom and on the playground.

“I have more friends now,” said Jonathan, 7, a 2nd grader. “Before I could only play with my friends who spoke English because I couldn’t understand Spanish. I like it this way a lot better.”

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