CHAPEL HILL — Chapel Hill-Carrboro officials hope to begin intensive Spanish- and Asian-language programs at two elementary schools aimed at making students bilingual.

Officials want to create two dual-language kindergarten classes in Spanish at Carrboro Elementary School and one kindergarten class at Glenwood Elementary School taught in Japanese, Chinese or Korean, adding more classes later. Students would have to apply.

Half the students in these type classes are native English speakers, and half claim another language as their native tongue. Classes are taught in English for about half the lessons, and the other language for the rest.

The school board is scheduled to vote tonight on a three-year federal grant application for the program. If the district receives the $ 525,000 grant, officials would start the classes in the 2002-03 school year. The program would cost $ 1.54 million over three years.

“I am totally excited about it,” said Mayi Sanchez, whose bilingual 4-year-old twins will enter the school system next year. “I am Cuban, and my husband is American, so I totally believe that being bilingual is a wonderful thing. The United States is behind the times. Being bilingual is the way of the world.”

In education jargon, the program is two-way dual language immersion, a fast-growing bilingual model used in more than 250 schools across the country. Last year, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley set a goal of establishing 1,000 programs.

In North Carolina, there are two such programs — one in Spanish and another in Japanese — in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. The Wake and Duplin county school systems received a joint federal grant last year to start a Spanish dual language class in the fall. Wake plans one Spanish class at Joyner Elementary School, said Tim Hart, the district’s senior administrator for foreign language and English as a Second Language.

The state Department of Public Instruction also has $ 500,000 in its budget request to the General Assembly to pay for five pilot programs.

“The whole purpose of the program is to have kids become bilingual and bicultural, which doesn’t happen in any other programs,” said Fran Hoch, the state’s section chief for second languages and ESL.

But the programs are not embraced by all.

The Center for Equal Opportunity, a Washington-based research group, believes the programs can detract from students’ mastery of English.

“Are the non-English-speaking students going to learn English?” asked Jorge Amselle, the organization’s vice president for education. “Learning a second language is a luxury, but learning English is a necessity.

“It seems that too often the Spanish-speaking kids are basically used as props to help English-speaking kids to learn Spanish.”

The driving force behind Chapel Hill’s proposal is the increase in students with limited English-speaking skills. Chapel Hill-Carrboro has 650 such students (who speak 58 languages), compared with 80 in 1990. Most of the students are taken out of the regular classroom for certain periods and taught English in a small group. This is the most common type of ESL program.

Educators say students in dual language programs typically score higher on national standardized tests.

Maria Palmer of the State Board of Education runs a private Spanish immersion preschool in Chapel Hill.

“Dual immersion is the only model,” she said, “where research shows that minority language students achieve at grade level or better at the end of their high school career.”

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