Two experts on bilingual education have opposite views on the dual language program that the West Liberty school district plans to implement this fall.

The program has drawn fire from some parents who say there is no proof that dual language education works. School administrators say they have researched the dual language approach and say it has been successful in helping Anglo and Hispanic children become bilingual.

The concept calls for Anglo and Hispanic children in the pre-kindergarten and kindergarten grades to be in the same classroom. The current school curriculum will be taught in Spanish for part of the day and in English the rest.

Boston University professor Christine Rossell, who has studied bilingual education for 15 years, says research shows that dual language programs come up short compared with other methods of teaching children a second language.

“(Hispanic) kids come out of them knowing English, but a little less than kids taught completely in English. The (Anglo) kids really don’t learn Spanish very well at all,” she said.

Rossell said Anglo children suffer academically in dual language programs and their parents often pull them out as a result.

Diane Cordero de Noriega, dean of the School of Education at California State University in Sacramento, says she has witnessed several successful dual language programs.

“I saw very positive outcomes for the children,” she said. “The kids are like little sponges. They don’t have quite the inhibitions. Kids at that age will absorb the language very quickly and at their level.”

Rossell and Cordero de Noriega agree that the West Liberty school district is doing the right thing by making the dual language program voluntary.

West Liberty, with a Hispanic student population of around 35 percent, will be the first district in Iowa to implement a dual language program in its curriculum. The district plans to start the program next fall, funding it in part with a $1.7 million federal grant. The district will have to contribute $218,000 the program, said West Liberty Superintendent Lee Hoover.

He said the district’s share won’t be “all cash” and will entail some reassignment of staff.

West Elementary Principal Bill Petullo said more than 200 parents attended an informational meeting Feb. 9 at which administrators explained the program.

He said dual language programs are “a major innovation for presenting foreign language for elementary school children and an innovation for children whose primary language need is to learn English.”

Petullo said some parents have received “misinformation” about the program and he hopes a series of scheduled meetings will help dispel that.

Petullo said teachers and administrators made several trips to Chicago-area schools last fall to learn more about dual language programs. He said the group was impressed by the results achieved by those programs.

Petullo said the district hopes to implement the program in two of the eight pre-kindergarten sections next fall and one of the five kindergarten sections. Another grade is added each year so students who started in the program can continue in it as they progress through school.

Rick Noble, whose twins will be in pre-kindergarten next year, opposes the program.

“I am an adamant proponent of my children learning a second or third language. I am against them being taught in a second language,” he said. “I don’t like using my children as guinea pigs.”

Noble also doesn’t like the idea of using around $2 million in taxpayer money to pay for the program.

“That seems rather excessive to me,” he said.

And he doesn’t like the way the district studied the program, then presented it recently to parents as a done deal.

“We’re being told, We know this. Trust us,'” he said.

The issue of bilingual education in California will be determined at the ballot box in June. The referendum asks voters if they want to get rid of the state’s bilingual system. Educators Cordova de Noriega and Rossell testified during a California Board of Education hearing on the subject.

“The politically correct position is to be in favor of bilingual education,” said Rossell. “This notion that kids sort of effortlessly learn a second language is false. I have simply reviewed the research. It’s quite clear that people are too romantic about these issues.”

Rossell supports English immersion for Hispanic children as the best way to teach them the language. She said Hispanic parents overwhelmingly support the California initiative to teach their children in English.

“There’s a reason why these people came to America. They want to be part of the American system. It’s only the intellectuals who want to teach them in Spanish,” said Rossell.

Cordero de Noriega said parent involvement and a well-planned curriculum are essential to having a successful dual language program.

She said “kids are perplexed” at the beginning of the program, but adjust

“I think there’s always concerns with something new… . The key is that the teachers and parents communicate well with each other so that everyone knows what’s going on.”

Principal Petullo said the program “will stand and grow on its own merit.”

“If it doesn’t seem to be a good thing in the long run, maybe it doesn’t deserve to go forward,” he said. “I feel strongly that it will be a good thing for young children.”

FYI: West Liberty will be the first district in Iowa to implement a dual language program in its curriculum.

The district plans to start the program this fall, funding it in part with a $1.7 million federal grant.

The district will have to contribute $218,000.

The dual language program will be voluntary.

West Liberty schools have a Hispanic student population of about 35 percent.

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