Lessons in two languages

Recipe for two-way bilingual education is a learning mix of half-Spanish, half-English

First-graders Esteban Rosales and Esteban Padron have developed a fast friendship during their first three months in Angelina Garza’s class at Bonham Elementary School.

Padron, who speaks some Spanish, and Rosales, who speaks almost none, are participating in one of the few, two-way bilingual education classes offered in the state.

The two-way format departs dramatically from traditional bilingual education programs. Instead of making English the dominant language, it tries to produce students who are bilingual and literate in both languages.

As the two Estebans got in line to go to lunch, Padron said, “I’m going to teach him (Rosales) Spanish, and he’s going to teach me how to draw.”

The 6-year-old Padron is doing exactly what the program is designed to do. He’s participating in the team work educators hope to develop by placing native Spanish speakers in the same class with native English speakers, ideally in a 50-50 split.

The process starts in kindergarten, where 90 percent of the coursework is taught in Spanish. English is added gradually, comprising about half the curriculum by the fifth grade.

Thereafter, the optimal plan calls for students to be taught in equal proportions of both languages until they don their cap and gown.

“Every student who graduates from Ysleta will graduate bilingual and biliterate and ready to enter a four-year college,” said Maria Seidner, director of bilingual education for the Texas Education Agency.

The Ysleta School District in El Paso is the state’s model for implementing the two-way bilingual system. Six of its 11 elementary schools now offer the two-way immersion program, and the district has plans to extend it through the 12th grade, said Antonia Tapia, coordinator of bilingual education in Ysleta.

The two-way approach has contributed to the school district’s success in mastering the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, she said, an accomplishment highly touted throughout the state.

“Ysleta Independent School District is the only recognized school district in the whole state of Texas that is an urban district, and they were low-performing just a few years ago,” Seidner said.

The correlation between improved test scores and the two-way immersion program reached national prominence following a comprehensive study completed by George Mason University professors Virginia Collier and Wayne Thomas in 1995.

They spent 10 years studying the performance of 700,000 students in different bilingual programs, and they found those in two-way immersion classrooms performed better on standardized tests than those receiving either bilingual or English as a second language instruction.

“Most bilingual programs try to eradicate the child’s first language by focusing on the eradication of Spanish,” said Howard Smith, a professor of bilingual and cultural studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

The results, he said, are lower test scores.

“There are about six different types of bilingual education programs. With all those programs, when you try to move a child quickly away from a minority language to English, you tend to produce a child who has a superficial understanding of the language in the content areas,” he said.

The content areas are key. Maria Rosales, who is teaching a two-way class for the first time this year at Bonham, said there is a big difference between teaching the Spanish language and teaching math or science in Spanish.

“The academic language is high,” she said, referring to the coursework in her third grade class.

Pointing to a chart depicting endangered species used to teach nature’s food chain, Rosales said she can no longer makes vague references to animals. Now she must be more specific.

“How do you say bottle-nosed dolphin (in Spanish)?” she asked.

Rosales said she spends a lot of time looking for resource material in Spanish that will provide the same in-depth understanding already provided in English-language textbooks.

The curriculum is demanding, she said, but students rise to the challenge. “Sometimes they get frustrated, but they’re learning it.”

Bonham Elementary School now offers two-way classes through the fourth grade, and it plans to extend that to the fifth grade next year to keep up with students who started the program four years ago.

Parents were asked to commit their children to the program for a five-year period, and now that their children’s tenure in elementary school is nearing its end, they said they would like to see the two-way curriculum in middle school.

Bonham parents Susan and Dwayne Bohuslav were avid supporters from the beginning. They had done some research, Susan Bohuslav said, and found that “learning languages is good for kids brains.”

The first grade was difficult for her son, Ray, who now is in the third grade. Ray is a native English speaker, and 90 percent of his classes were taught in Spanish in his first year.

“We spent hours doing homework, and it was hard. My son would ask ‘Why do I have to study this?’ ” she said.

Ray has since found himself translating for his parents, and recently he gave a bilingual presentation to parents from the Edgewood School District who are interested in two-way immersion instruction for their children.

“He doesn’t ask anymore why we are doing this,” Susan Bohuslav said.

In addition to Bonham, three other SASD elementary schools offer the two-way immersion option as do schools in the Harlandale, Edgewood and Pearsall school districts.

Pearsall, Ysleta and Lufkin school districts were the first in the state to receive funding from the U.S. Department of Education for the additional expense involved in two-way immersion classrooms.

Federal funding is the impetus for the rise in two-way programs throughout the state, Seidner said. The Education Department began disbursing funds to Texas to promote two-way instruction in 1992.

Since then, school districts have been moving gradually toward adopting two-way programs, but it’s not an easy task. Parents must be committed to the idea, bilingual teachers must have additional training and Spanish language textbooks are both expensive and hard to find, educators say.

Bonham Elementary’s Angelina Garza relies on large, colorful children’s books to teach her first grade class. They’re easy to obtain in English, but not in Spanish, she said.

She has resorted to writing the Spanish translation in some books, or she buys them wherever she can. “I’ve spent fortunes on books,” she said.

Garza is a big advocate of reading. She invites writers of the children’s books to talk to her students. Her students writes a book as part of their class assignment, and she takes them to printing presses so they can see how books are put together.

The effort seems to pay off. During a recent class time lull, each and every student selected a book and was reading out loud, but quietly, without being told.

“Five years ago, they would have been pushing each other,” Garza said. “Now they’re noisy, but it’s a good noise.”

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