Bilingual program succeeding
San Antonio Express-News
Jan. 23, 2005

Jenny LaCoste-Caputo

Olivia Bennett's fourth-grade classroom hums with activity.

 Children work in small groups, their heads close together, speaking softly to each other in perfectly accented Spanish. Three boys and a girl are building a diorama, reconstructing a scene from a book they've just finished reading.

 "Pon ese arból ayí," Valentina Morales tells her classmate, showing him where to place a plastic tree. Then, the Colombian-born 9-year-old turns to a visitor and asks in flawless English, "Would you like to know what we're building?"

 About half the children in Bennett's class at Esparza Elementary School in the Northside School District began kindergarten speaking no English. The other half began school speaking only English.

 Now all the fourth-graders are bilingual. They read, speak and write in both English and Spanish.

 The program, called dual language, is gaining popularity nationwide, both as a way to teach English to children who've had little or no exposure to the language, as well as an opportunity for English speakers to learn a second language.

 A group from the National Association of Bilingual Educators visited Esparza last week to observe its dual language program. Nearly 7,500 bilingual teachers and administrators were in San Antonio for the group's international conference.

 Esparza's program is one of about a dozen in San Antonio and 225 statewide.

 Some state lawmakers want to see more dual language programs in Texas public schools. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst outlined a plan earlier this month for reforming the state's school finance system that includes improving and increasing funding for dual language programs.

 A Senate plan calls for a dual language pilot program that could eventually expand to every Texas school district.

 "We want to get the data, find out the best practices and see if the success we're seeing in individual school districts can translate statewide," said Sen. Leticia Van De Putte, D-San Antonio. "This is such a positive approach."

 Esparza Principal Melva Matkin said the benefits of dual language programs are greater than what she expected when she launched the project four years ago.

 Matkin started with a kindergarten and first-grade class. The first-graders are now in fourth grade, and by next year, half of Esparza's classes at all levels kindergarten through fifth grade will be dual language.

 Dual language teachers say one of the most valuable parts of the approach is mixing English speakers and Spanish speakers in one classroom.

 "They pick up so much language from each other," Bennett said. "This group of kids has an incredible vocabulary, both in Spanish and English."

 The result: Students in Esparza's dual language classes are outscoring their peers on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

 The students whether their first language is English or Spanish take the reading and math tests in Spanish. Texas allows students to take the state-mandated tests in Spanish as long as they're enrolled in a bilingual or dual language program.

 Matkin said the success comes because the students are learning to master both languages and to absorb content. In traditional bilingual classes, the goal is to teach students English and to gradually phase out Spanish.

 Second-grade teacher Ana Hernandez said that in the traditional method, teachers spend more time repeating themselves than teaching reading, math and science lessons.

 "In a bilingual setting, you constantly have to translate. A 30-minute lesson takes 45 minutes," she said. "The students don't learn English as well because they don't need to. They just wait for the translation."

 Before bilingual education, non-English speakers were placed in traditional classes, a method called "immersion," and children were left to sink or swim.

Immersion is still used in many states.

 "Frankly, that program never worked," Matkin said. "Children need a strong foundation or they'll struggle in every grade."

 In a dual language program, students begin in a kindergarten where Spanish is spoken almost exclusively. In first grade, 90 percent of instruction is in

Spanish and 10 percent is in English.

 The ratio changes to 80-20 in second grade and continues to shift each year until fifth grade, when half the lessons are taught in Spanish and half are in English.

 Jennifer Rocha, 10, spoke no Spanish when she started first grade at Esparza in the dual language program.

 "It was kind of scary at first, but it was cool being able to learn a new language," Jennifer said. "After about two months, I could talk to people in my class."

 Jennifer's parents have liked the results so much, they enrolled her little sister in Esparza's dual language kindergarten class this year.

 Van de Putte said the dual language approach makes sense, not only for Spanish-speaking students to ensure they don't lose their native language while learning English, but also so English-speaking students can broaden their horizons.

 "This is about economic development," she said, pointing out that trade between Texas and Mexico is a $60 billion venture. "This is something our children need."