Storm Elementary School Principal Eva Leal-Trevi o thinks she’s found a miracle in a controversial bilingual education program called two-way bilingual.
Her West Side campus, adjacent to the San Juan Homes public housing project, is struggling with some sobering statistics:
– 92 percent of 548 students are economically disadvantaged;
– 68 percent of third-graders failed the math portion of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test last spring;
– 53 percent of fourth-graders failed the writing exam;
– 64 percent of fifth-graders failed the reading portion;
– 32 percent of students are limited English proficient.
“We are in an at-risk, low-economic status area,” Leal-Trevi o said. “When we were rated low-performing, we took a long, hard look at ourselves and realized that we were not meeting the needs of our English-limited students. We were not nurturing their language needs.”
While the numbers are better than they were three years ago, when the state rated the school low-performing, Leal-Trevi o said she expects the two-way language program to raise those statistics along with student academic achievement.
“We were not satisfied with the status quo,” she said. “We wanted to do more than just have a transitioning program or an E.S.L. (English as a second language) program. We want our kids to be biliterate and bilingual.”
The two-way bilingual program, if implemented properly, integrates an even number of English speakers and native speakers of another language – in this case Spanish – into one class. According to Donna Christian, director for the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington D.C., both groups learn to be literate in both languages.
Students in Storm’s two-way bilingual program are learning to read, write, add, subtract, socialize and ask questions in Spanish.
At this school, parents of kindergarten and first-grade children had the option of enrolling their children in the two-way program.
“Parents have to really want their children to be in the program to really make it work,” said Howard Smith, a professor with the University of Texas at San Antonio bicultural/bilingual studies program. Smith taught the 18 SASD teachers interested in learning about two-way bilingual in August 1995. He still serves as a consultant for schools implementing the program.
Smith has been holding monthly seminars to educate Storm Elementary parents about the program, in its first year at the school.
Another SASD campus, Bonham Elementary, just south of downtown San Antonio, is in its second year of applying the program. Burleson Elementary School in the Edgewood School District started it in 1992. Nine schools in Texas and 182 throughout the country had adopted the program by 1995.
Accompanying the renewed interest in bilingual education has been renewed interest in the two-way program, said UTSA bicultural/bilingual studies department head Robert Milk.
The main goals of a two-way bilingual education program are to have students develop high levels of proficiency in their first and a second language and to have students performing academically at or above grade level in both languages.
The idea of two-way bilingual education sprung up in the 1960s as political forces popularized language learning. But interest in the program waned in the late 1970s and 1980s as second-language instruction became ancillary to English.
Christian said a successful two-way program should provide a minimum of four to six years of bilingual instruction to participating students. The instructional focus should be in the same core academic curriculum as at other schools. Lessons should be in English at least 10 percent of the time and in the other language at least 50 percent of the time.
The program is controversial in parts of the country because it places equal value in the learning of both languages.
Until Veronica Obregon enrolled in kindergarten last year, Spanish was the incomprehensible language that her grandmother spoke. And when she walked through the doors of her two-way bilingual kindergarten class, she refused to speak in either English or Spanish.
Today, in Marianne Martinez’s first-grade class, she can read and speak in Spanish and can say she prefers to speak in English.
“Prefiero hablar en ingles,” she said.
She also can say her favorite foods are uvas, sopa and platanos – grapes, soup and bananas -and that her favorite part of her classroom is el centro de escritura, the writing center.
Neither Obregon nor any of the other English-speaking students would have been placed in the class if the parents didn’t ask, Leal-Trevi o said. And if a child had limited language skills overall, the student would not be in the program.
Leal-Trevino is banking on Christian’s studies, which show English-speaking children in a two-way program at an Arlington, Va. elementary school improved their proficiency in English and Spanish and scored at or above grade level in national standardized tests.
She also is banking on another center study that examined five urban districts. Students for whom English was a second language enrolled in a two-way program were more successful in secondary school than those in other bilingual education programs, according to the study.
“We needed to do something to address the children’s needs,” Leal-Trevino said. “And the research shows that the two-way program is most effective.”