Traffic flows both ways in cross-border bilingual program

EDUCATION: U.S. and Mexican kids learn each other's language.

CALEXICO – Six-year-old Katie Halloway rolls a suitcase half her size across the Mexican border.

But she’s not going to sun on the sands of San Felipe, she’s carrying a heavy load of schoolwork.

Every morning Halloway and an entourage of 15 Calexico students trek across to Mexicali to attend Centro Escolar Integral de Mexicali, a two-way bilingual school, where the goal is for children to read, write and speak Spanish and English by the end of sixth grade. Gates and Las Palmas elementaries in south Orange County share similar goals.

Halloway speaks English at home, but her parents – longtime business owners in Calexico – want her to learn Spanish.

“It’s arrogant for Americans to think that English is the only language,” said Ellie Halloway as she walked the group of children across the busy intersection of the two countries. “If we want our children to be true learners, true intellectuals, then we should expose them to all the cultures of the world.”

Katie’s blond hair flounces as she crosses the border against the tide of Mexican children coming north to learn English in American schools. They, too, want to reap the advantages of living near the border.

“We came to learn English,” said Hugo Castillo, a sixth-grader at St. Mary’s Catholic School in El Centro, 15 miles north of the border. About 400 children cross the border from Mexicali to be immersed in English every day. Only upper-class Mexican professionals can afford the $2,400 annual tuition.

While Californians are questioning the value of bilingual education, it is catching on in places like Miami, New York City and Arlington, Va..

About 200 two-way bilingual programs have been started in 22 states, teaching a dozen different languages. The idea is not just teaching English, but teaching English speakers how to communicate in another language, since the best jobs in the future may go to those who can adapt to other cultures.

The same thinking applies to Mexicali’s public schools.

In September, Baja California will begin a statewide pilot program for bilingual English courses based partly on programs in Calexico.

“Mexico is beginning to realize the importance of learning a second language,” said Carmen Patricia Miranda, an administrator at Leone Vicara, a Mexicali school. “So I’m very puzzled by the movement in California to end bilingual education.”

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