Dual language education gains momentum at APS
Annie Rodriguez understands the importance of language. When she came to Clovis, N.M. from Guatemala with her brother, sisters and parents at the age of 9, escaping a civil war, she learned that language determined her place in life. The fact that her family spoke Spanish, and not English, meant that she and her siblings, for the first few years of their U.S. schooling, would be placed in classes years below their grade level. It meant that her mother, who was a midwife and nurse in Guatemala, would divide her days between working around town as a hospital aid, and going to school, trying to learn English. It meant that her father, who was a minister before coming to the U.S., would earn money for his family by doing the laundry at a local rest home. And it meant that, one day, Annie would grow up and dedicate herself to language, to teaching and to early childhood development—because she understood the importance of getting a good start.
Rodriguez, who has worked for 18 years as a kindergarten teacher at East San José Elementary School near Gibson and Broadway, remembers the sense of shame and embarrassment that plagued her childhood, because her native language was not respected or valued. "A second language wasn't seen as something good back then," she recalls. She relates to the family histories of her students, many of whom have grandparents who are illiterate as a result of dropping out of school at an early age due to teaching methods that forced students to abandon their home language and quickly acquire English. Rodriguez, who has spent her life learning to embrace her mother tongue, is grateful that things have finally changed.
Spanish has historically been a language of little value in this country—at least in the eyes of policy makers. As recently as 1996, Republican Bob Dole campaigned for president on a platform that included a federal law proclaiming English as the nation's official language, which was viewed by opponents as a subtle way to discriminate primarily against the rising tide of Spanish-speaking immigrants. Considering there are currently 29 million native Spanish-speakers in this country according to the U.S. Census Bureau and more and more of them are registering to vote, such a policy is not likely to gain momentum in the future. What's more, over 37 percent of all New Mexicans speak a language other than English at home—the majority of which speak Spanish.
As a result, some local educators are beginning to recognize the value of being bilingual. This shift in values is evident through a relatively new educational model that is slowly gaining momentum across the country, and which, in addition to promoting cultural diversity, is yielding some remarkable academic results for children from all linguistic backgrounds.
Dual Language education is a form of bilingual education that branches out beyond what traditional models had done—which is teach non-English speakers to speak English. Dual Language, on the other hand, does more than teach English. It teaches, at least in this region, Spanish as well. It is a model that is centered around the goal of making students truly bilingual—a well-known advantage in today's global marketplace, as well as a trait that generally raises self esteem, intelligence and test scores while making kids and parents more receptive to different cultures, says Rodriguez.
But beyond bridging a cultural divide, the academic success rates for students enrolled in Dual Language schools are astounding. According to a study out of George Mason University by Wayne P. Thomas and Virginia P. Collier on the effectiveness of different bilingual education models, the Dual Language model far outperforms all others. Additionally, the study shows that Dual Language students are more likely to graduate and enter college than their peers, and that they also test higher on nationally standardized tests. Furthermore, students who are taught through Dual Language programs match or outperform their monolingual English-speaking peers as well—showing that it is not only the most successful model for bilingual education, but that it is the most successful of all educational models.
There is a correlation between being bilingual and reaching a high level of academic success, says Richard Baldonado, principal of East San José, one of a handful of pioneering Dual Language schools at APS. Baldonado explains language acquisition by comparing it to athletic training. He says that learning a second language is a way of exercising the brain, and by working out just part of it, the whole still benefits. Kids are able to do this especially well, he says, because they absorb information "like sponges." "It's surprising how much they pick up," he says.
Baldonado says that one of the reasons students acquire language so easily is because everything teachers do in the classroom is connected to action—a strategy called "sheltering" that helps to reinforce learning through object manipulation. In science classes, for instance, kids participate in a hands-on learning experience by working with plants and water, learning names in both English and Spanish. In fact, at East San José, students learn about natural cycles and the ecosystem through planting and maintaining the school's community gardens—where native vegetation serves as a real-life model of ecology.
Yet, despite all of Dual Language's apparent successes, there are still a number of challenges that the model faces. Gladys Herrera-Gurulé, state director of bilingual education, says that one of the main challenges for the program is a lack of public awareness and support. Herrera-Gurulé, who is a strong proponent of Dual Language and endorses it as the best model for bilingual education, says that there are many schools who would like to implement a Dual Language program, but don't have enough support from parents who don't believe in the program's academic benefits. This aversion to the program stems from monolingual English-speaking parents concerned that their child's development of English language skills will suffer if the child is immersed in Spanish during the first several years of elementary school
But Kip Bobroff, a professor at the University of New Mexico Law School, is not one of those parents. When Bobroff and his wife transferred their son to East San José's Dual Language kindergarten class five years ago, they felt some initial trepidation. They worried, as do many parents, that their child's English skills would be compromised.
At East San José, the Dual Language program begins in kindergarten and first grade teaching in 90 percent Spanish and 10 percent English. The Spanish immersion is evened out over time, and by the fifth grade students are taught equally in Spanish and English.
But Bobroff and his wife worked past their fears and waited to see how their son, who didn't speak a word of Spanish upon entering the program, would adapt to his new environment. Today, Bobroff's son, now in fifth grade, is considered bilingual, and Bobroff says that, although there was an initial lag in his English development, no one would ever be able to tell. He praises his son's abilities, and says that he recognizes the value of learning another language early-on. "He has an intuition for the language that I will never have," says Bobroff. "If I ask him why something should be said in Spanish in a particular way, he'll think about it and usually he'll say, ’Well, it sounds right.' That's the kind of level of fluency that you just can't get if you wait a long time to learn the language."
Now that Bobroff has seen the effects of Dual Language education firsthand, he is a strong supporter of the model, and is actively involved with a group of local parents and schools who are trying to garner further awareness and support of the model within the state. He was first drawn into the group about three years ago, when concerns among parents arose from claims that tests were being administered unfairly-—an issue that continues on today.
The issue of testing begins with the recently passed No Child Left Behind Act, which requires that students go through testing from the third through ninth grades to make sure they are reaching a certain level of standardized performance. Under the act's provisions, if a school's test scores don't meet certain benchmarks, the school is put on probationary status. Complications arise, however, with the way that tests are administered. Historically, tests have always been given in English. And since most students in Dual Language programs are initially taught in Spanish, most of their knowledge base begins in Spanish as well.
Up until about the fifth grade, students may not have reached proficiency in both languages yet, although they may still know all the concepts they are being tested on, says Cynthia Challberg-Hale, principal at Longfellow Elementary School in the East Downtown corridor, which is the only school in the state that exclusively offers a Dual Language education model. But because, until quite recently, tests were only given in English, many Dual Language schools were put on probationary status.
David Rogers, principal at Adobe Acres Elementary School, a Dual Language school in the South Valley, gives one such example, remembering when, three and a half years ago, Washington Middle School, also Dual Language, was awarded a check for $37,000 at a banquet for having the highest academic growth of any school in the state. Yet, two days later, the same school was in court facing corrective action because their test scores hadn't satisfied the new national standard. "They gave them a check on Tuesday, and were spanking them on Thursday," Rogers recalls.
Rogers and Bobroff were both involved in working to make Spanish-based tests acceptable for children in earlier grades—a goal which they eventually achieved. But although their work paid off and tests can now be given in Spanish, there is still a struggle in trying to ensure that tests are translated and interpreted correctly. Challberg-Hale says that local schools and parents are also working on getting "blended assessments," which provide questions and answers in both languages on the same test, and which she considers to be the ideal form of testing for a Dual Language school. By doing this, she says, students would finally be able to be tested accurately.
If this were done, more Dual Language schools would likely be taken off their "probationary status," and parents might be more willing to explore the program, which, according to Carlos Pagán, have the potential to transform not just students, but entire communities. Pagán, who works as a Dual Language consultant with the Northern New Mexico Network, previously worked for five years as the principal of a Dual Language elementary school in northern California. Originally named Westwood Elementary, Pagán's California school used to be the lowest performing in its district. Sitting in a low-income area, it was an example of "white flight," meaning that most of the Anglo families in the neighborhood would take their children to other schools outside the district. Pagán says that 95 percent of the school's population reflected a poor socio-economic class, mainly Hispanic, and that gangs were prevalent in the area. Additionally, the school would lose up to eight or nine teachers a year, as they opted to move on to more desirable locations.
Then, in 1998, Westwood Elementary made a small change. It introduced Dual Language as a strand in their curriculum—starting off with only 20 kindergarteners and 20 first graders in its first year. Parents were impressed with the results of the program, as they witnessed their children come home speaking Spanish, and saw their enthusiasm for going to school. And soon, through word of mouth, more and more parents came to the school seeking openings in the program for their children. It grew, and within a couple years, a large interest in the program started to form and families from all over the county started bringing their kids. Even the local mayor and police chief inquired about the school, says Pagán, and teachers suddenly wanted to work there. This trend continued over the next few years, along with a name change to Napa Valley Language Academy and a $5 million remodeling project, which was spurred by the political sway of some of the school's parents.
News of the school spread, and eventually real estate agents grew savvy to listing the well-known school as a neighborhood perk. Parents also became more actively involved in the school—several parents joined the school board and as many as 200, from all different economic backgrounds, would come to school meetings to voice their opinions. Now, there's a waiting list for the school; last year there were over 60 kids waiting to get into a kindergarten class.
The school's academic performance has continually increased. No longer the lowest performing school in the district, its standardized test scores have demonstrated a steady rise. The average school in California grows by about 13 points on the Academic Performance Index (API) every year (the scale the state uses to measure academic success), says Pagán. In the 2003-2004 academic year, Napa Valley Language Academy's API grew by 95 points, which is not only a higher increase than any other school in Napa County within that year, but is also the highest increase that any school in the county has ever experienced, says Pagán.
Pagán says that the root of the school's transformation lies in the quality of the Dual Language program. "People began to see how wonderfully students were doing, and how they were becoming bilingual/biliterate," says Pagán, "and they began to think about this and say, ’I really want to send my kids here, not just because they're going to have high test scores, but because of the value of the cultural and linguistic exchanges happening in the classroom.'"
Pagán refers to the linguistic makeup of a well-balanced Dual Language classroom, which is comprised of equal numbers of monolingual Spanish-speaking students, monolingual English-speaking students, and somewhat bilingual students. The structure for classrooms is based on linguistic balance, not on ethnic balance, he says. In fact, many of the Hispanic students enrolled in Dual Language programs don't speak any Spanish at first. Many are what educators refer to as "heritage" students, being children whose families have "lost" their native language over time. These children are excited to learn Spanish, says East San José's Baldonado, because they can then talk to grandparents or other relatives who they couldn't easily communicate with before.
The emergence of this type of education is a breakthrough in teaching, says Rodriguez, adding that valuing Spanish in schools makes a huge difference in the confidence and enthusiasm of her native Spanish-speaking students. She says that by not simply teaching them English, but by encouraging their growth in Spanish as well, students are taught that their culture is valued by society—a lesson that continues with them throughout their lives. And by structuring classes to represent different cultural backgrounds equally, students appreciate others as well as themselves.
Another initiative that some APS schools and parents are working towards will further increase the cultural exchange in the classroom. As a result of a shortage of teachers who are equipped to run bilingual classrooms, for years, the state has worked with other countries such as Spain in an effort to bring over teachers who can serve as authentic home language models. And, in fact, in July, Herrera-Gurulé says, the state will begin a new agreement with Mexico, which was signed by Gov. Bill Richardson and Mexican officials this last October, which will allow for the state to recruit teachers from our southward neighbor as well.
Yet Longfellow's Challberg-Hale says that problems still exist within the state's proposed solutions. She says that recruited teachers are only able to stay for a couple years, which detracts from the quality and stability of education that students receive. Currently, local group of schools and parents are working to get special licenses for international teachers that would extend the two-year restriction.
Funding is yet another initiative that principals Challberg-Hale and Baldonado are working on. In New Mexico, all bilingual education programs are given money by the state. Dual Language, falling under the heading of bilingual education, also receives funding, but only as much as other bilingual programs, despite the fact that the model has proven to be more effective. Money is generally awarded to schools based upon the number of hours per day that students spend learning in Spanish. And currently, schools can be awarded for no more than three hours of Spanish per day. Challberg-Hale argues, however, that Dual Language schools should receive additional funding since they often operate in Spanish for more than six hours a day. By receiving extra funding, she says, schools could implement more proven-effective programs and hire more teachers.
Still, New Mexico is making progress toward implementing more Dual Language programs, since the model is seen as a success. Lynne Rosen, director of Language and Cultural Equity with APS, says that both the Board of Education and Superintendent Elizabeth Everitt are interested in increasing the number of Dual Language programs in the city, and that they've been working on providing schools with training, support and professional development. And Challberg-Hale attests to the fact that New Mexico is already on the forefront of Dual Language education—leading the country with the number of programs available.
Herrera-Gurulé also has high hopes for the model and says that she will continue to promote it in any way she can. "All of us are committed to what's best for kids, and what's best for kids are high quality instructional programs, and Dual Language immersion is one of those programs," she says.
To find out more about Dual Language education, visit the website for Dual Language Education of New Mexico, a volunteer organization focused on providing training and support to teachers and communities, www.duallanguagenm.org.
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