Bilingual education tool faces hurdles locally
San Antonio Express News
March 29, 2007

Front Page above the cut in this morning's San Antonio Express News
Print edition had big bold headline "Duel over Dual Language"
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Bilingual education tool faces hurdles locally
Web Posted: 03/29/2007 11:38 PM CDT
Jeanne Russell

In majority Hispanic San Antonio, where most elementary schools serve at least some non-native English speakers, a highly regarded program for teaching them that also benefits students fluent in English remains a boutique rather than mainstream approach.

The reasons are varied and include a national political debate over bilingual education. But not putting such a well-regarded tool to more use for the 30,081 Spanish-speaking students in Bexar County public schools — more than 10 percent — comes at the kids' expense, advocates say.

They fear that dual language, though it is growing, remains stymied by misconceptions and a powerful national commitment to English first.

English language learners, as they're known, make up nearly 16 percent of the state's 4.5 million public school children, and are growing by a rate of 4 percent annually.

These students score lower on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills than their peers and graduate at lower rates. Some see a crisis in the making.

More coverage  
2/22/07: Charter school turned its 'weaknesses' into strengths
2/12/06: No-excuses education
On the Web
"The Astounding Effectiveness of Dual Language Education for All" by Virginia P Collier & Wayne P Thomas (2004)
"A National Study of School Effectiveness for Language Minority Students' Long-Term Academic Achievement" by Wayne P. Thomas and Virginia P. Collier (2002)
"Trends in Two Way Immersion Research" by Elizabeth R. Howard, Julie Sugarman and Donna Christian (2003)
What is dual language?
Also known as 'two-way immersion,' dual language is a program that seeks to teach children to be bilingual at an early age, starting in either kindergarten or first grade.

English-language children are totally immersed in a second language, usually Spanish. Spanish-speaking children first are taught key skills such as reading, math and science in Spanish, with English slowly introduced.

Most San Antonio programs begin teaching 90 percent in Spanish and add English at a rate of 10 percent each year. By fifth grade, students are expected to be able to be fluent in two languages.

Local Dual Language and Spanish Immersion elementary school programs:
Bonham Elementary, San Antonio ISD
Cambridge Elementary, Alamo Heights ISD
Colonial Hills Elementary, North East ISD
Gregorio Esparza Elementary, Northside ISD
Harmony Elementary, East Central ISD
Herff Elementary, San Antonio ISD
Hidden Forest Elementary, East Central ISD
Las Palmas Elementary, Edgewood ISD
Monroe May Elementary, Northside ISD
Pecan Valley Elementary, East Central ISD
Schertz Elementary, Schertz-Cibolo-University City ISD
Storm Academy, San Antonio ISD
Woodridge Elementary, Alamo Heights ISD
*Some school districts continue their programs into the middle and high schools; Harlandale follows a one-way immersion model for Spanish-speakers only at most of its elementary schools; Alamo Heights Spanish immersion program is for English-speakers only.

Sources: local districts,  
"Sadly, those individuals, if you don't get to them by fifth, sixth or seventh grade, they become dropouts," said Jesse Romero, legislative consultant for the Texas Association for Bilingual Education. "It's really an economic development issue for the viability of Texas."

Though every local school district serves some Spanish speakers, two of the districts with the largest percentage — San Antonio and Edgewood — have scaled back their programs, despite research proving its effectiveness.

Northside and North East have launched pilot programs. Alamo Heights, East Central, Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City and Harlandale are among the smaller districts embracing versions of dual language.

Houston, the state's largest district, has led the charge statewide, gradually adding dual language programs since 1994 with promising results.

A number of impoverished border districts — among them Hidalgo, Ysleta and Canutillo — have won acclaim for excellent test scores using the dual language model.

It works
Most dual language programs mix English and Spanish speakers together so children will also act as teachers. English speakers learn a second language through immersion and non-English speakers learn content and reading in their native language before adding English.

It's a powerful tool for students who are all to often described in terms of their "achievement gap" compared to their English-speaking peers.

In eighth-grade math, for example, 29 percent of these students passed the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills last year, compared to 57 percent of low-income children and the state average of 68 percent.

Dual language helps close that divide.
"It fully closes the achievement gap for all groups in the program — whether it is inner-city African Americans or Spanish-speaking Hispanics. If the kids are achieving at a low level, they make more than a year's progress each year, completely closing the achievement gap and they even become high achievers," said Virginia Collier, a professor emerita at George Mason University who co-authored a comprehensive look at dual language programs.

At Northside's Gregorio Esparza Accelerated Elementary School, dual language students — regardless of their first language — outscore their peers in almost every subject, with the biggest advantage appearing in fifth-grade science.

"By second grade, the kids who are native speakers are impossible to differentiate," said Principal Melva Matkin, who added: "That's why the teachers love dual language, because they're able to deal with the content and not focus on language instruction."

In Houston, Spanish speakers entered school significantly behind native speakers, but caught up between fifth and sixth grade and went on to surpass their peers, the 2002 study by Collier and Wayne Thomas found.

Traditional bilingual programs, which push English at an early age, don't work because they practically scream at kids, "you don't speak the right language, we're giving you your language until you do," said Terry Armstrong, bilingual and English as a Second Language supervisor for the Houston Independent School District.

The local landscape
In 1996, a San Antonio ISD task force concluded dual language programs could erase the stubborn test score gap between native and non-native speakers, a finding echoed last year by a second task force.

The city's largest urban school district piloted the program at a few schools with plans to add many more. But in 2000, then-Superintendent Rubén Olivárez arrived with what he saw as a more pressing priority — improving the district's middle schools by converting both elementary and middle schools to pre-kindergarten through eighth grade charter schools called "academies."

As a result, the number of dual language schools declined — a move with potentially serious consequences in a district where 17 percent of students aren't native English speakers.

Olivárez, who left the district last summer, said data supporting dual language was never brought to his attention. But his goal, he said, was to allow principals to develop unique programs at their schools.

Superintendent Robert Durón, who replaced Olivárez, said he'd recently learned of the research, and was impressed with scores at the district's three dual language schools.

"We want to support it and maybe expand it," Durón said of dual language. "We just need to figure out how to incorporate it into our strategic plan."

Another early leader, Edgewood, where 21 percent of the children aren't native speakers, reduced its dual language classes to one school because of school closures, said Emma Mungia, the district's bilingual director.

Most local districts are moving in the opposite direction.
Harlandale, where 15 percent of the children are not native speakers, uses what it calls one-way dual language for most elementary Spanish speakers. That means a longer emphasis on Spanish without the English speakers.

That's what Dallas did last year, and it's now gradually converting to more "two-way" dual language that mixes English and Spanish speakers. Those take more time, said Stacie Hill, an elementary specialist who is overseeing the Dallas Independent School District efforts, and finding and training teachers can be a hurdle.

Houston has also found it makes sense to add schools at a "deliberate pace," said Armstrong, in order to inform and earn the support of English-speaking parents.

Northside, which serves about 7 percent English language learners, opened programs at two elementary schools in 2001, serving Spanish-speaking students from nine surrounding elementary schools as well as English speakers. The district hopes to eventually offer a special recognition on bilingual students' high school diplomas, and a third elementary school will launch a program next year, said R.C. Rodriguez, the district's director of bilingual and ESL education.

Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City ISD serves all its Spanish speakers alongside English speakers in a dual language program at Schertz Elementary School, and East Central ISD expanded its offerings to three of its five elementary schools this year.

And Alamo Heights offers a popular Spanish immersion program at both its elementary schools, a choice it made because it didn't have enough Spanish speakers for a dual language program, said assistant superintendent Mary Zeigler.

Parents vie for limited spots in both Alamo Heights and East Central, which conduct lotteries for English-speaking parents and have waiting lists. Alamo Heights and Northside now offer subjects in the upper grades such as science and history in Spanish.

Opposition persists
Now a sophomore at Burbank High School, Bonham grad Nicole Franklin studies Spanish with all native speakers and says it has opened her mind to new ways of problem solving.

"I always thought there was more than one way to do something, because if I couldn't say it in one language I could say it in another," she said.

Her mother, Dawnya Franklin, put Nicole in Bonham's first dual language class in 1995, and two siblings followed.
"With the exception of English language structure, they've gotten everything they needed to learn in Spanish," said Franklin, who said they'd only run into problems with English spelling, as Spanish spelling is far more phonetic.

Still, Franklin said, she fought misperceptions from family members about whether dual language was good for her kids.
"I'd say, explain to me please where more education is a problem," Franklin said.
Iliana Alanis, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said she runs into persistent myths about dual language.

"One is just a misunderstanding about what bilingual education is. A lot of people think they're never going to learn English. Another is that it costs more money," she said. "Another is standardized testing. Even though in Texas we have standardized testing in Spanish, administrators want to test children in English."

Such opposition persists. During the current Legislative session, for instance, Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, opposed a proposal by Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, to study the effectiveness of the state's approximately 245 dual language programs, saying that English should be taught in the home.

That view is a common one, experts say, leaving dual language's future an open question.
"Our country and England are the only two countries in the world where children don't grow up speaking multiple languages, " said Collier, the George Mason University professor. "The U.S. is kind of slow and we're kind of scared because so many people grew up monolingually."
Austin Bureau Writer Gary Scharrer contributed to this report.

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