New charter school hopes teaching curriculum in English and Spanish will translate into success

Alexandra Cooks and Andrew Zapata embarked on an educational and cultural journey this week, learning a new language.

They are among the first students at Texas Language Charter, a new charter school in north Oak Cliff that will teach students in both English and Spanish.

Alexandra, 7, enrolled because she wants to talk to her grandmother in her native tongue. Andrew, 7, wanted to attend the school “so I could write to my mom and so I could teach my friends how to speak Spanish.”

TLC, which opened Wednesday in a wing of Grace Temple Baptist Church, will use a two-way immersion model, in which all subjects are taught in English and Spanish. The primary focus of instruction will not be on learning another language, but on academic skill development. The students will learn how to read, write, calculate, explore science – tackle all the things that children in other elementary schools are expected to master – but they will be taught those topics in English and in Spanish.

“If you really want to get fluency in a language, there’s nothing like the early grades,” TLC founder Mike Shepherd said.

Dr. Shepherd, who has taught English classes in Bolivia and bilingual classes in Dallas for almost 20 years, said he opened the school because he wanted to teach children in an integrated environment.

“All the arguments that I’ve ever heard about bilingual education would apply to anybody of any race,” he said.

So the school is a mix of English- and Spanish-speaking children of various shades and backgrounds who will help one another learn about their different languages and cultures.

Saadia Cooks was happy to move her daughter Alexandra from a parochial school to TLC, but only after doing her homework on Dr. Shepherd’s reputation.

“I did my research about him,” she said. “He’s a superb teacher and has been in the district for many, many years.”

As a charter school, TLC receives public funding, so children attend free of charge. The charter school concept was created in Minnesota in 1991 and adopted in Texas in 1995 to encourage innovation in education and to free educators and families from many of the restrictions that some see as barriers to reforming education.

But with the freedom comes a degree of risk. Charter schools don’t receive the oversight that regular public schools do. Some have shown promise, while others have failed.

Ms. Cooks, who joined the school’s board so that she could get a close look at how things are run, said she likes what she sees.

Diane Dillard, whose son Stephen is a second-grader at TLC, chose the school because she thinks it will challenge her academically gifted child, who gets easily bored.

And, she said, there are intangible benefits that will come from attending the school.

“On a social level, being exposed to different cultures and thinking of them as natural, I think is a good thing,” she said. “There’s going to be a variety of types of children at the school.”

For now, TLC is enrolling children only in kindergarten through third grade.

Dr. Shepherd, who has a mix of kindergarten and first-grade students, and Humberto Arriaga, who has a combination of second- and third-grade students, will alternate between English and Spanish as they teach.

The students will build literacy in the two languages simultaneously. Teachers’ instructions won’t be given once in English and once in Spanish. Rather, with the teachers’ assistance, students will have to grasp the concepts taught regardless of the language.

Lezley Lewis, an educational consultant, gave teachers and parents an idea of what that kind of learning might look like at a training session Saturday.

She displayed a line from a former student’s assignment: “Mi hermano Bryan got his cast off ayer y he got it on again hoy.” In time, she said, such a student would learn to separate that “Spanglish” into proper Spanish and English.

Ms. Dillard, a violin teacher, believes in music’s ability to strengthen other areas of learning. In the same way, she expects Stephen’s mastery of Spanish to expand his abilities to grasp other things.

“Academically, it might be a little slower in the beginning,” she said, “but in the long run, it increases your capacity to learn.”

Parental participation is a must at the school. From tutoring to reading to painting with students, parents must contribute a minimum of 30 volunteer hours a year.

“Some of the parents think about that, and they don’t send it [the application] back,” Dr. Shepherd said. But that’s OK, he said.

“If the parents are not with us, we’re fighting a losing battle. We’re asking the kids to learn more, and we need the parents’ support.”

Parents can rack up 10 of their 30 hours by taking English as a Second Language or Spanish as a Second Language classes, “so they can learn right along with the kids,” Dr. Shepherd said.

For Mr. Arriaga, who grew up in a Spanish-speaking household, the two-way immersion school is a sign of how much things have changed since he was a little boy.

“Back then, they weren’t too fond of people speaking Spanish in school,” he said. “The bilingual program back then was a paddle.”

But TLC will praise – not paddle – students for maintaining their native language while acquiring a new one.

More than 40 children pre-registered for the new school, but 32 attended the first day of classes. Dr. Shepherd said he plans to add a third teacher and split up the kindergarten and first-grade classes once enrollment reaches 54.

So far, he said, he has sensed more interest in the school from English-speaking families than from Spanish-speaking families.

“The English-speaking population is more familiar with what a charter school is and what a charter school is about,” he said.

As a result, he said, they’re more likely to try something new.

His goal is to add a grade each year until the school expands to a K-6 configuration. With six or seven years of instruction, TLC students will be truly bilingual, Dr. Shepherd and Mr. Arriaga said.

“It takes several years to master a language, regardless of what the language is,” Mr. Arriaga said. “That will give them a solid foundation in both languages. Now, they may have a preference for one over the other, but they’ll be able to communicate like native speakers.”

While there has always been an expectation that immigrants will learn English, the need for Americans to learn other languages, especially Spanish, is growing.

“The governor, whether he’s very fluent or not, is able to impress people with what he does say,” Dr. Shepherd said. In fact, he added, Mr. Bush’s bilingual skills earn him points with non-Spanish speakers, too.

The school, with no geographic requirement, has attracted families from around the east side of the metropolitan area, including Dallas, De Soto, Duncanville, Garland and Mesquite. The school is located just a few blocks from the north Oak Cliff public library, which has an extensive collection of Spanish-language materials.

For Grace Temple pastor R.E. “Mickey” Moriarty Jr., the school is much more than a rent-generating tool. The school, he said, increases traffic through the building and strengthens the church’s ties to the surrounding neighborhood.

“I think it’s a much-needed service for this area,” he said. “It is very important to bridge the language gap. Those of us who don’t speak Spanish should learn it. Those of us who don’t speak English should learn it. And it is even more important and more critical to be sensitive to the differences in the cultures and to respect them.”

The church, which closed its preschool a few years ago, was a perfect site for TLC, he said, because of the church’s facilities, proximity to the library and its location in the middle of a Hispanic neighborhood.

“We think it’s going to be a pretty good marriage,” he said.

For more information about the school, call 214-941-4881.

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