Dual-Language Program at School Wins Praise of Parents

True believers in bilingual education tout the brain-teasing theory that the best way to teach students one language is to teach them in another. Yet, some will concede, when cornered, that there are flaws in how theory is put into practice.

Much of what passes for “bilingual education” is neither bilingual nor educational. Too often, there’s too much instruction in Spanish while English takes a back seat, programs aren’t accountable, parents who want students out can’t get them out, and students stay in bilingual classes long enough to earn a doctorate in them.

But there is good news. One of the brightest stars in the bilingual education galaxy is an innovation called “two-way” bilingualism, or dual language instruction.

A language swap where English-speaking students learn Spanish and vice versa, the program avoids the trauma that may result from the “sink or swim” model of total immersion. But unlike programs conducted mostly in Spanish, it doesn’t segregate and stigmatize students in order to teach them.

Consider what appears to be a wonderful program at Phoenix’s Valley View School, a public school in south Phoenix. The students in Maria Jimenez’ fourth-grade classroom are taught with “two-way” instruction. Literature and reading are taught in English, with math and science in Spanish. Students move back and forth between the two languages with ease.

“They’re at a point where they mix the two languages and don’t even think about it,” Jimenez said.

Jimenez, 24, previously taught in a traditional “bilingual” program where the emphasis was on learning English. She likes two-way better.

So does Valley View principal John Wann, who believes students don’t have to surrender one language to learn another.

“We should teach students English but we shouldn’t suggest that there’s something wrong with Spanish,” Wann said.

Some parents are thrilled.

Warren Brown has two sons at Valley View. Fourth-grader A.J. now speaks both English and Spanish. That persuaded Brown, an African-American, to sign up for six years of instruction for his younger son, LeBraxton, now in kindergarten.

Brown believes that his sons’ bilingual abilities will make them more marketable.

“They’ll be able to write their own ticket,” Brown said.

Two other parents, Aurelio and Maria De Leon, are also pleased. They have three grandchildren at Valley View, with whom they can now communicate in Spanish.

But not all bilingual programs are equal. Not even all bilingual classes at one school are equal.

Valley View has a dozen two-way classrooms, but five others in which most of the lessons are in Spanish with a goal of learning English.

All in all, according to the Arizona Department of Education, two-way programs are still rare.

They are tough to staff because they require teachers who are at ease with both languages, something not true of all bilingual teachers. That’s part of the problem.

“It’s hard to have an authentic bilingual program if you don’t have authentically bilingual teachers,” Jimenez said.

And other bilingual teachers remain skeptical of dual language instruction.

Because they are rare, any success of two-way programs has to be taken with a grain of salt. And programs that are failing shouldn’t get a free ride on the backs of those that are succeeding.

Arizona voters may have to sort all this out soon. In Tucson, a group of Hispanic parents – “English for the Children of Arizona” – is proposing a ballot initiative that would require that students be placed in all-English classrooms. They are being assisted by California businessman Ron Unz, who led a similar effort in that state.

(In the interest of disclosure, I was, for a few months before joining The Arizona Republic last year, a part-time consultant to the “English for the Children” campaign in California).

With the threat of an initiative, the Arizona Legislature is ready to deal. A new bill proposed by Sen. Joe Eddie Lopez, D-west Phoenix, would hold schools accountable for bilingual programs and give parents more power. While it would not set a limit to the number of years that a student could remain in bilingual classes – and would have been stronger if it had – the bill is a positive concession, of sorts.

More concessions have to be made, and by people on both sides.

The critics of bilingual education should concede that they don’t want to put an end to good programs that work and throw the baby out with the bath water. And its supporters should concede that the baby, in its current form, is often far from clean and still needs a good scrubbing.

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