Spanish for native speakers

High school takes a new approach to bilingualism

CAMPBELL, Calif. — Despite the fact she’d grown up speaking the language, Janet Rodriguez felt like a foreigner in her Spanish class. She was bored by the rudimentary grammar. She rarely participated in class discussion. And while her knowledge should have earned her top grades, it didn’t. At the end of three years, she dropped the course.

Today, the senior at Prospect High School is back in her Spanish class. And she loves it.

The difference? A program in the Campbell Union High School District that teaches Spanish to Spanish speakers the same way high school English is taught to English speakers — reading literature, writing poetry and discussing social issues instead of memorizing sentences and endless grammar drills.

For years, bilingual specialists have recommended such an approach to teaching native Spanish speakers their own language. In Campbell, officials found that placing native speakers in regular Spanish class didn’t work. The kids were bored. They acted up. Many dropped out.

Janet’s teacher, Manuel Colon, said he could understand why.

“”It’s like being a native English speaker, going to English class and learning how to say “My name is . . . ‘ over and over again,” he said.

Bilingual educators say it’s important for students to continue learning their native language at the same time they are learning English. Even though many of Colon’s students are able to speak Spanish, they can’t read or write the language. Often, that spills over to their ability to master English.

Campbell administrators already have seen the benefits. They say the course has boosted self-esteem and reduced the dropout rate among Hispanic students. Most importantly, it has given some students something to focus on — a future that could include college.

The district started the program three years ago at Del Mar High as a way to reach native speakers who wanted to continue learning Spanish but couldn’t seem to succeed in regular classes.

Now, about 100 students are enrolled in the course, which is offered at several high schools. Students say the classes make them think — not just about Spanish but about social issues such as racism, sexism and war.

In Colon’s class, students often are embroiled in high-spirited, hand-waving discussions on topics ranging from the role of women to the plight of the homeless. They publish a book of poetry and short stories each year. They say they’re learning.

“”For some of them, all it takes is for a teacher to tell them they can do it,” said Christina DeRuiter, who teaches the class at Westmont. “”Some teachers may not take the time to do that, but this program is geared toward encouraging (students) to stay in school and graduate. ”

The course is a mix of students. Some, born in the United States, have grown up watching MTV and hanging out at the mall.

They feel more comfortable speaking English. Others only recently arrived in the United States and understand virtually no English.

Both groups felt intimidated in other classes — such as math or history — unsure whether their opinions really counted. Now, they speak out more frequently in all their classes.

“”It’s really a comfortable place to come, especially if you just arrived in the country,” DeRuiter said. “”You’re able to communicate in your own language after going through the day in a foreign system — it’s a family atmosphere. ”

Few districts, however, have been able to offer such courses.

Bilingual teachers are hard to find, and budget problems have forced cutbacks in course offerings, including foreign languages.

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