Emphasis on bilingual

Dual-immersion programs in Inland elementary schools aim to develop youngsters' fluency in English and Spanish

Angela McGraw answers questions in Spanish. She rolls her R’s well enough to make a high school Spanish teacher smile. The girl with a blond ponytail even says her first name with the proper Spanish pronunciation: An-he-la.

Across the room, a boy whose family speaks Spanish at home molded a chunk of clay. “I’m making a face,” Diego Viramontes said confidently. Not bad for 5-year-olds.

Such moments are becoming more common in Inland classrooms from Banning to Corona and from Temecula to San Bernardino.

Across the Inland area and beyond, educators, parents and children have embraced “dual immersion” — a program that mixes Spanish- and English-speaking students in the same classroom with the goal of making both groups bilingual. Last year, schools in Corona and San Bernardino added programs. Next year, Corona-Norco schools will add another.

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Support in two languages

Like Angela and Diego’s kindergarten class at Corona’s Washington Elementary School, in which the teacher speaks only Spanish, but students can speak English, the programs educate children while teaching them a new language along the way.

“Our world is a bilingual world,” said Washington parent and Norco resident Pam Vieira, who is non-Hispanic and couldn’t speak Spanish to her son Jacob at home. “To impress us he asks, ‘Where are my zapatos?’ Where are my shoes? . . . By the time he’s in high school, he’ll be bilingual.”

Parent Ofelia Viramontes experienced the reverse.

Her son Diego walks around speaking English in a house of Spanish speakers.

“He doesn’t like Spanish, he loves English,” Viramontes said in Spanish. “He’s doing very well in both.”

In the programs, native Spanish speakers get to immerse themselves in English. Meanwhile, children whose parents’ Spanish often goes no further than a Mexican fast-food menu begin moving toward bilingualism.

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Some questions

Officials say dual immersion, which is voluntary for parents, works.

“Savvy parents see the benefit of having bilingual, biliterate children,” Washington Principal Gayle Horn said.

George Mason University researchers concluded that test scores of dual-immersion students topped six other programs for students learning English.

“The only programs where the students are doing very well are the two-way programs,” said Marcia Vargas, coordinator of dual-immersion programs for the San Bernardino County superintendent of schools.

Some question whether using large doses of Spanish in dual immersion is the best approach in an age where standardized tests in English have become so important.

“I think if we’re going to test them, English is the language they’re going to be tested in,” said Gayle Cloud, a school board member in Riverside, which does not have such a program.

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Temecula’s experience

Two-way immersion lets children get to know and help each other, said Vargas, who oversees the grant-funded Lincoln program. It lets native Spanish speakers learn subjects immediately in their own language, she said. Plus, Vargas said the programs succeed because they see bilingualism as an asset, not a problem.

In typical fashion, Corona-Norco’s program begins with 20 kindergartners: half from English-speaking families and half from Spanish-speaking households. In a popular model used in Corona, pupils initially spend the bulk of their day in Spanish.

Still, some worry about that approach.

In October, a Temecula dual-immersion charter school reduced pupils’ dosage of Spanish after Temecula Valley school board members said the school’s test scores among both English- and Spanish-speakers were lower than at other Temecula schools.

The Language Acquisition Magnet Program switched from nearly complete Spanish immersion to 70 percent English instruction for all.

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A Corona classroom

In Corona, Washington teacher Rafaela Aversa won’t utter a word of English around the kids.

“Y tu, que vas a comer?” Aversa asked children seated at lunch tables. “And you, what are you going to eat?”

Describing their different lunches, they answered in English, “a hot dog,” and in Spanish, “a taco.

Aversa said she doesn’t think children will get confused or lag in building English skills over the long run.

“The first month was a lot of work,” Aversa said. “In three months, it’s amazing what they’ve learned.”

Horn agreed, saying that scores may dip, but studies of dual-immersion programs show that scores eventually will rise.

For about 30 minutes a day, Washington children study the English language with teacher Ana DeGenna. Then, it’s back to Aversa and Spanish, which is used 90 percent of the time. Next year, two Washington kindergarten classes will begin following the same model. This year’s pupils will move on to first grade, still learning through dual immersion.

In second grade, Washington children will reduce their use of Spanish to 80 percent. By fourth grade, and on through sixth, the ratio is 50 percent Spanish, 50 percent English.

Despite the touted benefits, dual immersion may not be for everyone.

Horn said that shy children may not be ready because they might lack the assertiveness to pick up a strange tongue.

But the children in Washington’s program enjoy showing off their skills. For example, in addition to sprinkling Spanish into daily conversation, Vieira’s kindergartner now tries his hand at high school Spanish.

“He helps his sister in high school with Spanish,” Vieira said, smiling.

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Inland schools with programs that immerse children in English and Spanish include:

* Central Elementary School, Banning

* Washington Elementary School, Corona

* Hillside, Lincoln and Urbita elementary schools, San Bernardino

* Language Acquisition Magnet Program, Temecula

* Sultana Elementary School, Ontario * Hinkley Elementary/Middle School, near Barstow

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About dual immersion

Most English-Spanish dual immersion programs share certain features.

* Pupils learn to speak, read and write in both languages.

* Programs are voluntary. Half the children in each class are native Spanish speakers; half speak English at home.

* Classes begin with instruction primarily in Spanish and gradually add more English.

* Pupils spend their whole day in the immersion program, which includes daily English lessons.

* Pupils begin the program in kindergarten and move together from grade to grade through elementary school.

* State education officials allow dual immersion through Prop. 227 waivers. The proposition requires public schools to teach primarily in English.

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