WASHINGTON—Attorney Donald Salzman slept overnight in a friend’s car last year, trying to enroll his daughter in the J.F. Oyster Bilingual Elementary School’s pre-kindergarten.

Unfortunately, 4-year-old Garrett did not make the cut. But Salzman was back in line a few days ago for the September enrollment. He was hoping his daughter would get one of the kindergarten places allotted to kids who lived outside the boundaries for the school.

In an annual ritual, scores of out-of-boundary parents have camped outside the bilingual school several days in advance for a chance to enroll their children. After more than 100 people were recently lined up outside the Oyster school, D.C. officials finally figured out a way to ease the around-the-clock wait with a daily roll call.

In what appears to be shaping into an ironic twist – especially in this time of bilingual backlash when heavily Hispanic states like California and Arizona vote down bilingual education – a significant number of families are opting for their children to attend D.C.-area schools that teach in both English and Spanish.

These parents want their children learning in schools like Oyster and the Key Bilingual School in Arlington, Va., because the schools offer diversity in what is too often an economically and socially – if no longer racially – segregated area. The schools have high academic reputations with challenging curricula. And, say the parents, Spanish is the hemisphere’s language of the future.

The parents believe that Spanish and English will coexist peacefully in the United States and that learning Spanish will benefit their children both socially and economically as the United States and Latin America become more interconnected.

Salzman hopes that he can eventually get both Garrett and his other daughter, 8-month-old Tait, into the Oyster school: “It’s pretty clear that besides English, Spanish is going to be a dominant language in our country,” he said. “I know that learning Spanish will benefit my daughters. It will help them understand people better.”

“Everyone understands that the global society is the future,” said Arturo Flores, the Oyster school’s principal.

The “two-way” bilingual program used at Oyster differs from the usual transitional bilingual program, which starts teaching children in their native language with the goal that they learn English down the road. That type of program is currently under fire by critics who believe it’s best to drop kids into English-immersion classes.

The Oyster school mixes classes half with students who speak Spanish and half with English-speaking students. There are two teachers in each classroom, one Spanish-dominant, the other English-dominant. The teachers decide when to teach which subject in what language. They plan their classes to support their partner’s lessons. The goal is not just to get the Spanish speakers to learn English, but to have all the kids become bilingual.

The students at Oyster learn to read and write in both Spanish and English from the time they enter pre-kindergarten.

Just as important as the language mix at Oyster is the economic-social mix. Parents of Oyster students include members of Congress, diplomats, domestics and hotel workers. “We try to keep our school community as diverse as possible,” said principal Flores.

The two-way program has become “very popular” around the country, according to Jaime Zapata, spokesman for the National Association of Bilingual Education.

Zapata noted that 10 years ago there were “a handful of these programs. Now there are about 300 two-way programs. It is not out of the question that a decade from now, there will be several thousand of these programs.”

Bilingual educators say that it takes six to eight years for children to become proficient enough in two languages for bilingualism to have long-term academic effects. Donna Christian, who heads the Center for Applied Linguistics here, said studies under way suggest that both the Spanish and English speakers in two-way programs do better academically than students in other schools in their district.

The studies have shown that “nearly all Spanish-speaking students are fluent in English by the third grade, and that by the fifth grade, a lot of the English speakers are quite fluent in Spanish.”

Many of the Hispanic parents enroll their children so that as they grow up in the states, they will not abandon Spanish.

“I want my children to relate to all economic, social and cultural groups – and to be able to speak Spanish to their grandmother in Puerto Rico,” said Mariam Montes Infante, whose two sons, Andrew, 8, and Eduardo, 4, attend Oyster.

When she moved here from London, Pam Ross looked at the schools in the D.C area before deciding where to live. She chose the Northwest Washington neighborhood so that she could enroll her two children at Oyster.

“The school has a really strong academic program, but, more importantly, I want my children to know that speaking another language is extremely valuable,” said Ross, whose second language is French. “I also want my children to know that, despite popular belief, English is not the only language that counts.”

(Robert Friedman writes for the San Juan Star)

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