Learning language in-depth

EDUCATION: Two schools in San Bernardino offer dual-immersion classes in Spanish and English.

SAN BERNARDINO—Trisha Lancaster struggled through years of French and Spanish classes, but never became fluent in either language. When she heard that Hillside Elementary School was starting a class taught in English and Spanish, she enrolled her 5-year-old son, Zachary.

The program just got under way this summer, but Zachary already has Spanish-speaking friends and can introduce himself in Spanish. He should be fluent in both languages by the time he gets to middle school, experts say. “It doesn’t happen unless you’re immersed in it,” Lancaster said.

This year, two elementary schools in San Bernardino joined campuses throughout the United States offering so-called dual-immersion programs. Lincoln Elementary has two kindergarten classes of dual-language students and Hillside has one.

About half of the students in each class are native English speakers and half are native Spanish speakers. Hillside chose a program where about 50 percent of the class is conducted in English and 50 percent in Spanish. At Lincoln, about 90 percent of the kindergarten lessons are presented in Spanish and 10 percent in English. As students get older, they will gradually learn more in English and less in Spanish.

The goal is for students to become fluent in Spanish and English by the time they complete elementary school. They also are expected to do as well or better than their peers in other subjects.

Erin Mason, who helps oversee Lincoln’s program, taught dual-language immersion classes for several years in Long Beach and in Banning. She said students in the programs learn a second language quickly and don’t lose the ability to communicate in their native language.

“They’re like sponges,” Mason said. “They just soak it up.”

Some opponents of two-way immersion programs argue that native Spanish-speaking students don’t learn enough English, especially in programs that begin with 90 percent of the class taught in Spanish. The Language Acquisition Magnet Program, a Temecula charter school, is switching from a 90 percent model to a 70 percent Spanish program because student scores on standardized tests were too low.

But Marcia Vargas, dual-immersion curriculum coordinator at the San Bernardino County Schools office, said students in good programs all become fluent in both languages.

She also said students in dual-immersion programs are usually performing at grade level by third or fourth grade.

“Students in these programs are really quite amazing, but this is a long-term program,” she said.

Sharon Swan, principal at Lincoln Elementary School, said she is willing to accept low test scores for a year or two, because the dual-immersion students’ results will jump up during their last years in elementary school.

“You’ve got to look at the long term,” she said.

Lincoln and Hillside administrators said parent involvement is key to the program’s success. They hold meetings to keep parents informed about the program and communicate with them in English and Spanish. They also emphasize the importance of keeping their children in the program as long as possible.

Along with learning another language, children learn to accept students from different backgrounds and cultures, Mason said.

Lancaster said her son already has friends who are native Spanish speakers.

Students in the class seem to figure out what they are supposed to do, even when their teacher is talking to them in a language they don’t fully understand. At Hillside, teacher Maria Cleppe gestures and points to pictures to explain what the children are supposed to do. That means she can stick with the designated language for that particular lesson and help the children pick up more vocabulary.

In class last week, Zachary said he couldn’t speak much Spanish yet, but he generally seemed to understand what Cleppe was saying in Spanish.

“I can say my numbers,” Zachary said. “That’s about all.”

During a lesson in English, children read about leaves and selected the correct color for them. Zachary’s classmate, Daniela Suarez, did not speak much, but took out the right crayon to go with the word “brown.” She also correctly counted the number of words in the sentence in English.

Cleppe said the children in her class are doing well academically and many have become more outgoing. She thinks the program is great for the children. “It’s over in other countries, so why not here?” she said.

Lancaster, a second-grade teacher at Hillside, is happy that Zachary soon will be fluent in at least two languages. She even remembers some of her Spanish when she helps him with his homework.

“No matter what field you pick it will be very beneficial to be bilingual,” Lancaster said.

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