Making New Maps for the Labyrinth of Learning

Language: Bilingual immersion program teaches students to understand Spanish and English---and something about each other.

Just a quick look at Teri Spencer’s class gives a hint of the successes at Santa Monica’s Edison Elementary. On Wednesday, Spencer was quizzing her fourth- and fifth-graders in Spanish about American Indian pictographs. Both Anglo and Latino children answered — in perfect Spanish.

Like most schools, the focus at Edison is on math, science, reading and other subjects in the basic curriculum. Unlike most schools, the medium for sending the learning message is in Spanish.

The process is called two-way immersion. Instruction in kindergarten is 90% in Spanish and 10% in English; by the fourth grade, it tapers off to 50% Spanish and 50% English. And at Edison, learning Spanish is not a battery of drills and skits, but virtually a subconscious process, an attempt to make students in the innovative program bilingual in four years.

The two-way immersion program at Edison Elementary, selected by the U.S. Department of Education as a model program, was in the spotlight Wednesday with a visit from Rita Esquivel, the department’s director of bilingual education and a former teacher and administrator in the Santa Monica School District. She was joined by an entourage of educators and researchers from across the United States and Canada.

The Edison program is one of 17 model bilingual programs across the country; seven of them are in Southern California.

The program was started five years ago as a way to turn the school around from being “a disaster area,” said school board member Peggy Lyons. At the time, Edison was saddled with discipline problems and a reputation for being in a bad neighborhood, she said. Many Anglo families avoided the school.

Now, parents are clamoring to get their children in its doors. Ellie Pittman, who was born in Scotland and raised in French-speaking Montreal, said she enrolled her daughter Alana because knowing Spanish is essential in California. “Americans are very narrow-minded when it comes to language. They just think, ‘This is America, and you should just speak English.’ “

The program has “exceeded all expectations,” said Lynne Dillon, whose 9-year-old son interpreted for her during a trip this month to Buenos Aires.

The Spanish-speaking youngsters, meanwhile, pick up English from their English-speaking friends. “The English will automatically come,” said Iris Preciado, whose daughter Elizabeth is in the first grade.

More than two-thirds of Edison’s 385 students are in the immersion program, with the rest in regular bilingual classrooms. And while the higher grades are still predominantly Latino, Anglo children constitute half of this year’s kindergarten class.

Because it has a model program, Edison will receive about $166,000 a year in federal funds for up to five years, to be spent on more tutors, teacher training, books and a bilingual social worker. The model programs, chosen from a field of 111, include those in Los Angeles, Culver City, Long Beach, Saddleback Valley Unified School District in Mission Viejo, Valley Center Union Elementary District in San Diego County and ABC Unified School District in southeastern Los Angeles County.

Esquivel, who helped start the Edison program as an assistant superintendent in the district, said “it’s deja vu, and I’m very proud of it.”

Most of the Spanish-speaking children come from the working-class neighborhood near the school, while the English speakers live in more prosperous areas of Santa Monica and the Westside. But the children are even crossing that barrier — sleeping over at one another’s houses, going to one another’s birthday parties.

“We do get, sometimes, some children who think a little bit less of the Spanish speakers,” said teacher Nora Jacob-Marai. “When they come here, and realize the teacher is speaking Spanish, they realize it’s good (to know Spanish), it’s not just for the busboy.”

They are also learning cooperation. “It makes me feel good because I know English and Spanish very well and I can help other people, help them translate,” said Cindy Ramirez, 10.

In an interview, Esquivel recalled that 27 years ago, she “was one of those teachers in Texas who punished kids (for) speaking Spanish. I look back (on those days) and shudder. We’ve come a long way.”

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