WINDHAM, Conn.—Kathy W. Lank knows only a few words in Spanish, the remnants of high school language classes she remembers with a shudder.
That was one reason that she jumped at the chance to enroll her daughter in an unusual bilingual education program here at the North Windham Elementary School in which English and Spanish speakers are taught in both languages.
“I remember trying to learn a language in high school, and it floored me,” said Mrs. Lank, a part-time teacher’s aide at the school. But her fifth-grade daughter, Myralynn, seems to be picking it up easily, learning both from her teachers as they instruct students in two languages and from classmates whose native speech is Spanish, she said.
“Sometimes, with their friends, they speak half in English, half in Spanish,” Mrs. Lank said. “Whatever language they’re talking, they’re comfortable with.”
In this system, known as a two-way bilingual program, most subjects are taught in both languages, and both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking students learn together. More commonly, bilingual programs put children with limited English skills in separate classes where they are taught in their native language while learning English.
As debate about bilingual education has swirled around the country in the weeks since California voted to disband its bilingual programs in favor of a one-year English immersion class, Windham’s bilingual classrooms have a waiting list — parents of both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking students are eager to enroll their children. About 200 students take part in Windham’s program, which started in the 1992-93 school year with kindergarten and has expanded a grade a year since.
“The ability of speaking in a second language is an absolute gift,” said Jack Giordano, principal at North Windham. “We’re certainly positioning these students very well to be successful in the 21st century.”
Two-way bilingual classes, which started in Canada as a way to teach French to English speakers and now number 225 in the United States, are continuing to increase in popularity nationally and here in Connecticut. Two other cities in the state, New Haven and New Britain, have similar programs, as does a New London magnet school serving a regional district. And the school district for New London itself is planning to start a pilot program in the fall.
Studies show such programs improve the English skills of foreign-language students faster than traditional bilingual programs, said Fred Genesee, director of the Division of Education at the University of California at Davis, who is leading a national study of two-way programs, including Windham’s.
Windham education officials hoped that the bilingual program would help solve other problems faced by this struggling former mill town 60 miles east of Hartford. As in many other school districts, the regular bilingual programs had tended to segregate minority students and English speakers, though half the students are Hispanic, officials said.
Often, students in those segregated classrooms felt stigmatized, said Windham’s School Superintendent, C. Patrick Proctor. “This two-way program brings kids together on a level playing field,” he said. “Each child is responsible for sharing and learning language.”
Statewide language tests are not administered until the fourth grade, and so the two-way system hasn’t had a chance to produce conclusive test results, but they show that Spanish-speakers are doing better than their counterparts in customary bilingual courses, and that English-speakers are holding their own.
As in many two-way programs, Windham teachers have class in Spanish one week, then in English the next. Students are also taught the basics of their native language every day. But teachers also have some flexibility. Wilson Soto Jr. teaches his fourth graders mostly in English, but they work on projects in Spanish. He taught science in English, then had students do projects on the rain forest in Spanish.
He said he tried to pair English-dominant and Spanish-dominant students, so they could learn from each other. “Instead of separating students, it’s unifying,” he said. “The children get to see they have strengths in one language. It values that native language, be it English or Spanish.”
One of his students, Maricely Jimenez, who spent kindergarten in a traditional bilingual program, said she spoke much more Spanish in that class. “In first grade, this was hard for me,” she said, “but as I got older, it became easier.”
If anything, it is the English-dominant children who tend to get lost, especially when their Spanish-speaking classmates start talking quickly. “They can read Spanish really, really fast,” said Emily A. Rasicoz, 10. But, she added, “once you get used to it you can keep up with them.”
She also finds use for Spanish at home. “I talk a lot in Spanish to my brother,” she said. “I make fun of him in Spanish. And he can’t beat me up because if he does I tell him it’s something nice.”