Madeleine’s native language is English. Crystian came to school from Guadalajara speaking only Spanish. Esther grew up hearing English and German.
But they all learn in the same third-grade classroom at Edison Language Academy in Santa Monica. They spend part of the day in Spanish, part in English — with the goal of becoming literate in both.
This form of bilingual education is called “two-way immersion,” and researchers say it’s one of the best ways to teach children a second language. In 1987, the United States had 30 such documented programs across the country. Now there are more than 200, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C.
In Ventura County, Glen City elementary school in Santa Paula offers a two-way program. But unlike Edison, where the entire school uses that approach, Glen City offers just one two-way classroom per grade.
Edison, a public school with grades kindergarten through five, lies just off the Cloverfield Boulevard exit of Interstate 10 in a poor, mostly Latino area filled with apartment buildings. Bright murals cover several school buildings. On the playground, orange nasturtium flowers spill out of wooden planters.
Teacher Jeannie Dworin is sitting with a small group of kindergartners on a recent Thursday. In Spanish, she tells a boy named Garrett to cut out pictures of things that aren’t living.
He leafs through a magazine and stops at a map of Utah. “Teacher, maps don’t live,” Garrett says in his native language, English.
She answers in Spanish: /”Muy bien. Mapas no son vivos.”/ Very good. Maps aren’t alive.
Later, Dworin tells the class to switch to English. They talk about what living things do that nonliving things don’t, like breathing and eating.
At lunchtime, it’s back to Spanish. /”ANo vamos a comer si est n hablando!”/ she tells the fidgety bunch — We’re not going to eat if you’re talking!
The first two-way programs appeared in the United States about 30 years ago, but most have sprung up over the past 10 years. The idea comes from Canada, where many schools have taught children in French and English.
With two-way immersion, it’s not enough to stick all the kids in one room. They must learn together, in the same language. That means no teaching the Spanish speakers in Spanish while the English speakers get taught in English.
“The whole premise of two-way programs is that bilingualism is an asset,” said Liz Howard, research associate at the Center for Applied Linguistics.
Larry Salmon, who teaches a two-way class at Glen City School, calls this approach the future of bilingual education.
“As we’ve seen with the Unz initiative, there’s a lot of interest in doing away with bilingual education — except people might change their minds if they saw it could be beneficial for all kids,” Salmon said.
At Edison, kindergartners spend 10 percent of the day — about 25 minutes — in English. The rest of the day is spent in Spanish. Each year, students learn more in English, so by fifth grade, they’re spending half the day in each language. They can stay in a two-way program through middle school and high school, something most school districts with two-way programs don’t offer.
Teachers make sure kids of different languages sit together, so they can learn from each other. It also helps give the children a native-like accent in the language they’re learning.
Edison’s program was born out of necessity. In the early 1980s, enrollment throughout the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District dropped, so the school board considered closing Edison, which had mostly Latino and African-American students. At the time, Edison had some of the worst test scores in the district.
Parents and neighbors, however, wanted to keep the school open. A task force in 1985 suggested a new program that would take advantage of the fact that so many Edison students spoke Spanish.
With help from a UCLA researcher, the group proposed starting a two-way immersion program. In 1986, the first class started with 25 kindergartners. The school added a grade level each year, until the entire school used the two-way approach.
In a study published last year, two George Mason University researchers found that students learning English do best in two-way programs. In fact, by 12th grade, they had higher test scores than native English speakers in a regular classroom.
Studies done at UCLA, Harvard and in Canada show students in two-way programs have better vocabularies and do better at solving abstract problems. Educators say two-way programs have other benefits, namely a greater exposure to different backgrounds and cultures.
Edison draws children who live in $850,000 Brentwood homes and children from the neighborhood who share their home with two or three other families. Children of Hollywood studio executives and college professors learn next to children of cooks and housekeepers.
Dworin gets excited when a Spanish-speaking parent calls for help getting in touch with an English-speaking parent so their children can play together.
A group of Edison fifth-graders raves about their school and the advantages to studying in two languages.
“In the future, we’ll be able to have more opportunities, more jobs,” said 11-year-old Sahoua Gboizo, who was born in Africa and grew up speaking French and English.
Ten-year-old Bryan Marquina agrees. His father comes from Guatemala, his mother from El Salvador, so he grew up speaking Spanish but knows English, too. “I want to be a cop or one of those persons that works at the immigration office, so I can help people get their green cards. They might need help trying to understand what people say.”
This year the school had to turn away 32 families because there wasn’t room for them. That’s one sign of success, but the school wants to get hard numbers. Edison is one of 10 two-way programs the Center for Applied Linguistics will study over five years. In addition, a group of parents are in the process of comparing the 12th graders who went through the program with those who didn’t.
If such programs are as effective as their proponents believe, why aren’t there more? They won’t work just anywhere, said Lori Orum, Edison’s Title VII coordinator.
First, you need enough children who speak a second language to offer the second language and English. You need teachers who know what they’re doing. At Edison, the only three teachers who aren’t fully credentialed will be soon, and they’re native Spanish speakers.
Parents need to commit to the program, too. At Edison, parents are strongly encouraged to volunteer, and told to make sure their children have Spanish-English dictionaries.
Ron Unz has complained that two-way programs cost too much. Granted, it takes money to start up such a program. Edison received three years of federal funding to start its program. But now, the school gets no special extra money.
Count Dawn Sassoon among the happy Edison parents. “I think if California would institute some of the things we do here, people wouldn’t be bad-mouthing bilingual education,” she said.