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School credits teaching in English for success

Bilingual students at Glenwood Elementary School achieved success in tests with a program that introduced English learning earlier than traditional methods.


Staff writer

SPRINGFIELD - With two "advanced" MCAS scores under her belt, fifth-grader Kristen S. Ramirez is proof that bilingual children in a poor, urban district can shine.

Kristen earned the top Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test scores last year in language arts and mathematics as a fourth-grader at Glenwood Elementary School, where a methodical approach has been crafted to deliver academics in English rather than Spanish.

She admits her formal education had a rocky start.

"At first I didn't understand anything the teachers said and it was hard," said the 11-year-old, who began as a kindergartner at Bowles Elementary School.

The A student switched to Glenwood the following year, learning in the bilingual program for two years and making the transition to regular education in grade three with staff support.

"Here, there was more English in school. We did a lot of activities, and I started to understand it better," she said.

Kristen is far from the only bilingual success story at Glenwood. Not a single fourth-grader who is or was in the program failed MCAS last spring or the previous year, thanks to the schoolwide approach.

Tucked away in the Hungry Hill neighborhood of the city, Glenwood is a school with 385 children in grades kindergarten through five. The 77 girls and boys learning to speak English make up 20 percent of all students, far above the overall district rate of 11 percent.

And while achievement rates among children in bilingual programs remain frustratingly low, Glenwood has shown that it can be done.

The latest Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test scores illustrate the achievement.

At Glenwood, fourth-graders scored an average 250 in language arts and 243 in mathematics, both in the proficient range and well above city and state averages. In fact, Glenwood scores are tied for first place in the city with Talmadge Elementary School, where there is no bilingual program.

A look at Glenwood's bilingual scores makes a good story even better: Children learning English scored an average 237 in mathematics, as compared with 217 among bilingual children in the city, and 221 among bilingual children in the state. Overall, city fourth-graders scored an average 227 in mathematics.

Language arts numbers for bilingual children have yet to be broken down by school.

Principal Daniel J. Warwick said the program he and his staff developed began 10 years ago.

"We knew our transitional bilingual children weren't doing well, and we looked into exactly why," Warwick said.

Right away, staff members zeroed in on the fact that Spanish-speaking children were learning only spoken English. Glenwood converted to a literacy-based English program that also stressed reading and writing.

Two years later, the school, with permission from then-Superintendent Peter J. Negroni, aligned all bilingual curriculum and textbooks with what children in regular classrooms were getting.

Warwick said the results were quick.

"Right away, we could see performance going up. They were learning more English more quickly, and they were able to easily move into regular classrooms and understand the work," he said.

In 2000, Glenwood moved to the sheltered English program that the rest of the city began this fall, where Spanish-speaking children learn in English. Spanish is used only where needed.

Teachers like Nancy Chaves and Ramon L. Quiles say teaching in English has been key to the high achievement rates.

"Students are more exposed to English. It's great because they are learning a new language and at the same time getting all the skills that they need," said Quiles.

"I can see the difference," he said.

Chaves likes the fact that her Spanish speakers are learning the same materials as the children in other classrooms.

"We parallel everything. I've seen it work. You're targeting the language that they need to know, and if they're stuck you give them a word or two in Spanish," she said.

Quiles has mixed feelings about the ballot question, but he knows this: "Parents are very aware of the importance of the English language, and how important it is for the future of their children."

Mary Ellen O'Shea may be contacted at moshea@union-news.com



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