Demand mounts for early ESL
Dallas Morning News

October 3, 2005

By KAREN AYRES /
Schools scramble to offer bilingual classes for pre-kindergartners

 VERNON BRYANT/DMN McKINNEY Miriam Garcia's young students can't read the "Super Job" stamp in her hand, but they seek the mark of encouragement on their art projects.

Erika Meza teaches students in a bilingual pre-kindergarten class at Caldwell Elementary School in McKinney. The students, who primarily speak Spanish, get at least 15 minutes of English instruction throughout the day.

  "I told them that it means muy buen trabajo, or very good job," Ms. Garcia said, laughing as 22 children flooded her with their latest creations.

Ms. Garcia and her assistant work with 43 4-year-olds every day and are used to being in high demand in their bilingual pre-kindergarten classroom at Caldwell Elementary School in McKinney.

"When I started six years ago, I had 15 kids," Ms. Garcia said, smiling as she gestured to her full classroom. "This is just beautiful."

State law requires that classes like Ms. Garcia's be available to preschool-age students who don't speak English. If there is the demand in a school district, schools are required to provide instruction.

That demand is growing quickly in Texas.

The number of 4-year-olds in bilingual pre-kindergarten classes funded by the state soared nearly 60 percent in six years, to 55,000 students during the last school year.

Suburban and urban districts are scrambling to hire bilingual teachers and open new classes. Many students still wait for open seats.

Some northern suburbs with historically little demand for bilingual pre-kindergarten are seeing the sharpest growth.

"I knew we would be bigger this year, but I never predicted it would grow this much," said Jennifer Hulme, the coordinator of special programs in Allen.

The Allen school district opened its first bilingual classes this year.

The two classes now hold a combined 36 students. Frisco schools had 30 pre-kindergarten bilingual kids last year, and the district opened two additional classes this year.

Alicia Richmond, the district's director of special programs, said finding highly qualified teachers is a challenge.

"Having the early childhood and bilingual certification certainly is a rare find," she said.

In McKinney, the bilingual program reached capacity this year with 88 students, leaving several kids on a waiting list. Though the district plans to open another class soon, officials know they face a tough task finding a teacher.

"It's hard to find bilingual teachers anyway, regardless of what grade, but it's even harder to find teachers who are certified in early childhood and bilingual," said Sheila Sherman, director of bilingual services in McKinney. "It's nearly impossible."

Waiting in Dallas

Several hundred children remained on waiting lists for pre-kindergarten last year in Dallas. The Dallas Independent School District has opened 33 bilingual classes this year to accommodate those students.

  But many children are still on waiting lists.

Beth Steerman, executive director of the district's early childhood center, said the staff is working to find spots for as many kids as possible.

  "Will it be 100 percent? No. I couldn't tell you if it's going to be 100 or 300 [on the waiting list] right now. But I'm going to tell you it's much better than it has been."

The Dallas district's bilingual pre-kindergarten program has grown about 20 percent in four years, to nearly 4,500 kids.

While most districts operate half-day programs, Dallas runs many full-day classes under a grant program from the Texas Education Agency. Ms. Steerman said those grants have been cut twice in recent years, preventing the district from expanding its offerings.

Last year, the district received nearly $4.8 million for the full-day sessions. This year, it expects to take an $80,000 cut.

"We're getting there in terms of serving the children who are eligible," Ms. Steerman said.

The Arlington school district, which saw its bilingual pre-kindergarten program grow 60 percent in four years, hasn't applied for the full-day grants because it doesn't have the space, according to Carole Hagler, director of pre-kindergarten services.

Garland schools have opened two early childhood centers this year, partially to accommodate the district's 900 bilingual pre-kindergarten students.

Statewide growth

Bilingual pre-kindergarten programs are also expanding elsewhere across the state in part because more people are finding out about them.

"Communities are becoming more aware that the earlier you introduce kids to school, the better," said Dr. Leo Gomez of the Texas Association for Bilingual Education.

In most programs, students spend practically all day learning in Spanish. The idea is to build the student's Spanish skills to help them learn English.

"A solid foundation in pre-k is going to help children get off on much better footing and be able to compete," said Ms. Steerman of DISD. "We approach it as dropout prevention in its truest form."

Critics and fans

Not everyone agrees with bilingual education.

Ron Unz of English for the Children, a group that successfully lobbied to end bilingual education a few years ago in California, said pre-kindergartners would learn better in English.

"The younger the child, the easier it is to learn English," Mr. Unz said. "If you teach them English in pre-k, they'll learn it even easier than they would at 6 or 7 years old."

Nonetheless, bilingual pre-kindergarten programs show no signs of stopping or slowing in Texas.

McKinney resident Linda Herrera said she could not imagine putting her children in an English program. Her son's skills, she said, improved tremendously after a year of bilingual pre-kindergarten.

"He learned a lot," Ms. Herrera said as she recently picked up her daughter from bilingual pre-kindergarten. "But mostly his vocabulary improved."

Serving these young students pays off in the future, said Dr. Joseph Lopez, the director of special programs for Garland ISD.

  "We're trying to eliminate the student achievement gap, which is really the challenge before us," he said. "People who don't finish school successfully, they're not going to just roll up and die. They're going to exist one way or another. It's a very serious issue."

E-mail kayres@dallasnews.com

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