Schools to expand bilingual education

Banning Unified receives a $ 2.8 million federal grant to train teachers help youngsters eventually master two languages.

BANNING—Call it a blueprint for bilingual education utopia.

Every teacher would be trained to teach students who are not fluent in English. Textbooks in the students’ native language would be easily available. English classes would be accessible for their parents. And children, both English speaking and those who do not speak English, would be taught together with an aim toward mastery of two languages.

Throw in $ 2.8 million in federal money to finance this bilingual education program and a picture emerges of what Banning Unified School District will be focusing on over the next five years.

The district is one of 33 nationwide, and 29 across California, chosen last fall to receive a five-year federal grant to improve bilingual education in kindergarten through 12th grade.

“It’s the shot in the arm that we needed,” said Aurora Gonzalez, director of multilingual and categorical programs.

For the past eight years, the district has been out of compliance with state regulations relating to bilingual education.

The reason is simple.

“We don’t have enough bilingual teachers,” Gonzalez said.

The district has only four bilingual teachers and they all speak Spanish. Yet about 1,400 of Banning’s 4,000 students speak limited English. More than 75 percent of them speak Spanish followed by Hmong and Laotian. The district relies heavily on its 24 bilingual instructional aides who speak Spanish, Hmong and Laotian.

But they are not enough.

“We are simply understaffed in terms of having qualified teachers for limited-English speaking children,” said Mary Serrano, a coordinator for the federal grant.

To fill the void, the grant will pay for the district’s 180 teachers to be trained in instructional strategies to teach students who do not speak English fluently. The training is known as Cross-cultural Language And Academic Development otherwise known as CLAAD. By the beginning of next year, Serrano hopes to have 71 CLAAD-certified teachers, a target that should bring the district back into compliance.

District officials also plan to use the grant to buy native language instructional materials such as Spanish textbooks and to open an assessment/parent center at the district office where students can be tested for English proficiency and adults can take English classes.

Finally, the grant will finance the opening of a dual immersion academy at Central Elementary School in the fall. The goal of the program is to make English-speaking students proficient in Spanish and Spanish-speaking students proficient in English.

The program will start with two classes of kindergartners made up equally of Spanish speakers and English speakers. For the first two years, they will be taught in Spanish for 90 percent of the day. They will spend about a half hour on learning English.

By the time the students reach the fifth grade, half the day will be spent learning in English and the remainder will be spent in Spanish.

Dual immersion debuted in Riverside County at Joan F. Sparkman School in Temecula last summer and is part of a growing trend in bilingual education programs offered across the country.

The program is underscored by a belief that immigrant students learn English better and retain their native language when placed in classrooms with their English-speaking peers. The English-speaking children gain the benefit of proficiency in two languages.

Gonzalez said pure bilingualism should have been the goal when bilingual education first started in public schools more than 30 years ago.

“I think we have been missing the boat,” she said. “We should have been the cradle of bilingualism. I mean we are only 90 miles away from the border. “

The idea is catching on among parents of children who speak English, Gonzalez said.

Natalie Rios said she plans to enroll her 5-year-old daughter in the dual immersion academy at Central to take advantage of the youngster’s desire to learn Spanish.

“My daughter pretends to speak Spanish at home,” Rios said.

Amid enthusiasm for the upcoming program and the grant, district officials are keeping close watch over how Prop. 227 – the initiative to limit bilingual education in public schools and replace it with one year of English immersion – plays out on the June ballot.

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