San Antonio Express-News (TX)
February 22, 2007

Bridging the language gap

Gilbert Vasquez, a high school teacher, grew up on San Antonio's West Side speaking both Spanish and English, and when his son was ready to enroll in kindergarten, he sought a school that viewed the Spanish language as an asset rather than a weight to be shed.

His son Joseph now attends Storm Academy, a small West Side school that has engineered a remarkable turnaround since it posted abysmal test scores a decade ago. The school has emerged as an innovator, beginning with the dual-language Spanish-English program that Vasquez takes the second-grader to every day.

In addition to Joseph learning academic Spanish, Vasquez said, "we wanted him to celebrate his heritage and culture."

The improvement of this elementary school, which became an open enrollment charter school within the San Antonio Independent School District last summer, has drawn the attention of researchers as well as visitors from as far away as Africa. Many attribute the school's
steady progress on test scores to a shift in attitude on the part of teachers and school leaders, who went from focusing on poverty and lack of English skills to drawing on their children's bilingualism as a strength.

"Many times they (educators) look
at what the children don't have," said Mari Cortez, a professor of early childhood at the University of Texas at San Antonio, "rather than looking at the richness of their culture and what they bring to school."

Area Associate Superintendent Elizabeth Melson praises
Storm's achievement in spite of being "one of my most at-risk schools in terms of their student population," and credits the teachers' ability to come together, collaborate and agree on an approach.

At a time when President Bush has called for closing the educational gap between Anglo, black and Hispanic students as well as poor and affluent students, the steady improvement of this school in one of San Antonio's most impoverished neighborhoods, adjacent to a housing project, is noteworthy.

One-third of the school's children come from homes that speak limited English; 99.8 percent qualify for free lunches; 97.9 percent are Hispanic.

Throughout the 1990s,
Storm couldn't seem to shake a history of low test scores, particularly for its students who spoke little English. In the 1996-97 school year, it earned the state's lowest rank of "low performing," -- and not for the first time.

Just 22 percent of its third-graders passed the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills in reading and 24 percent passed math; 36 percent of fourth-graders passed reading and 39 percent passed math. The scores for Spanish speakers were significantly lower.

Unlike bilingual education, which is designed to support children with Spanish while teaching them English, dual-language programs teach children content in both languages. The program uses Spanish more heavily in the beginning, with the goal to make students fluent in both languages.

About one-third of the participants speak English, so for those students the program operates as Spanish immersion. Another third speak Spanish and learn to read and do math in their native language while slowly adding English. Ideally, another third are bilingual students who foster student interaction in both languages.

Despite its proven success, dual language remains controversial among those who believe public schools should, above all, promote English fluency.

Dual language is just one of the programs
Storm has pioneered over the past decade. In 1999, Storm was the first school in the inner city district to offer a full-day preschool program, which now serves the majority of the neighborhood 3-year-olds. And last year, teachers introduced the college-prep methods of AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), invented as a high school program to help students reach for college.

It also has a strong partnership with the University of Texas
at San Antonio, which, among other benefits, has helped it attract top-notch dual-language teachers, Storm Principal Angela Dominguez said.

About half the school's children are enrolled in the dual-language program, and the remainder study in a traditional English-language model, Dominguez said.

Rise in test scores

Test scores for
Storm's students have climbed steadily since the school adopted dual language a decade ago. That first year, 1997-98, it moved up one ranking to "academically acceptable," and later earned the higher rating of "recognized" for three years based on TAAS scores.

Its ranking fell back to "academically acceptable" in 2003-04 under a new ranking system using the more difficult Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, and it remained there for the past two years.

Last year's fourth grade was a bright spot, with 84 percent passing TAKS reading, 79 percent passing math and 99 percent passing writing.

While student performance has improved across the board, dual-language students outscore their peers, Dominguez said.

The school became a charter school within SAISD this summer, which should keep any pressure from the district to test its children in English in the fourth grade
at bay. School leaders predict that testing students in Spanish in fourth grade and English in fifth -- in keeping with the dual-language model -- will further boost results.

The charter also allows the school to open its doors to anyone who may want to enroll a child, allowing parents such as Vasquez, who lives near Maverick Elementary School in SAISD, to bring his second-grader to study
at Storm. This year, the school's size grew from 480 students to 523 because of that transfer policy, Dominguez said.

Andrea Greimel, the school's lead bilingual teacher, predicts those numbers will grow as parents become aware of the benefits from bilingualism that go beyond TAKS mastery.

Anecdotally, and based on her own daughter's experience in another dual-language program, Greimel says bilingual children become stronger readers than monolingual children.

"They become really in tune to language," Greimel said. "They have the self-esteem that I believe is
at the heart of high achievement. They feel they have in their possession an academic and social strength that is sought after by many people."

Fourth-grader Briana Vidal, 10, says she ended up in the dual-language program because the teachers "told my parents that I was real bright."

She gets to use her English
at home with her parents, Vidal said, but her grandmother only speaks Spanish. Though in the beginning she struggled because she understood little Spanish, she persevered and caught on, she said.

As an added benefit, she said: "I've heard you can get very good jobs if you speak two languages."

Storm Academy

--Has pre-kindergarten through fifth grade.

--Has 523 students.

--Has a new charter status that allows the school to accept students from outside neighborhood boundaries.

--About half the school's students are in a dual-language, Spanish-English program that emphasizes Spanish in the early years and eventually teaches children to be fluent in both languages. The school also is piloting AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), a program historically used in high schools to promote college,
at the elementary school level.

Storm Academy

1. Daniel Cleto, 5 (left), uses a pointer in teacher Theresa Mayfield's dual-language pre-kindergarten class
at Storm Academy. 2. A sentence written by 5-year-old Storm Academy student Gerardo Aguilar states, in Spanish, 'I love my dog because he follows me.' The charter school stresses drawing on the student's bilingualism as a strength. PHOTOS BY JOHN DAVENPORT/STAFF

Copyright (c), 2007, San Antonio Express-News. All Rights Reserved.
Author: Jeanne Russell
Section: A Section
Page: 01A
Copyright (c), 2007, San Antonio Express-News. All Rights Reserved.