Scaling the language barrier. California school's bilingual education success story

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The teachers at the Heritage Elementary School here have a ready reply for those who say bilingual education is ineffective. They point to statewide achievement test scores that show children in bilingual classes at their school at the same level as, or in some cases ahead of, their peers. Or they observe that students in the Spanish-English program aren't dropping behind their grade levels, and are successfully making the transition into junior high school. ``My truly bilingual students,'' that is, those who have been through all six years of the program, ``are all at grade level or above,'' says sixth-grade teacher Linda Mora. And a dozen or so pupils have been able to move quickly into eighth grade after just one semester in seventh, she adds.

In Mary Jacques's second-grade class, a cluster of pencil-clutching students are writing out simple sentences in English, then in Spanish. Some of these youngsters, she says, are not quite ready to make the move into English reading. But by the time the school year is three-quarters over, ``they'll be looking for English books to read,'' she says.

Such observations probably won't convince many critics, who have their own set of statistics on the performance of bilingual programs. And, as many observers have noted, the controversy over bilingual education runs much deeper than test scores or grade levels -- all the way to people's long-held ideas of what American society ought to be like. But philosophical considerations aside, the demand for instruction geared to children with little or no grasp of English appears to be burgeoning.

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This mid-sized, largely agricultural town in California's Central Valley offers a case in point.

When Pat Morales, a first-grade bilingual teacher at Heritage, arrived at the school four years ago, her class had three students described as ``limited English speakers.'' Her present class has 19 such children.

Most of the limited-English speaking youngsters in the Lodi district are Hispanic, usually Mexican in background, though lots of other ethnic groups are represented, too.

For example, the number of Southeast Asians entering the schools here and in surrounding towns has grown rapidly. The Oakwood School in the Lodi district has a model program for the children of Hmong immigrants, the Laotian hill people who have settled in the United States in recent years.

The Heritage School might qualify as something of a model itself. It incorporates a six-year English-Spanish bilingual program that could be ``put up against any in the state,'' contends the district's multicultural, multilingual coordinator, Joy Jones. What makes their program unusual, she says, is the high quality of the teaching. All the teachers in the Heritage School program are trained bilingual instructors, having earned credentials either through graduate study or by passing a state-admini stered test. In the state as a whole, there's a shortage of fully trained bilingual teachers.

The school's curriculum is divided into ``tracks'' -- two regular tracks with instruction in English, and one fully bilingual track. The latter is a well-planned mix of Spanish and English instruction, and it includes Anglo, or English-speaking, students as well as Hispanic children. Many English-speaking parents -- particularly those who have worked as aides in the school -- are anxious to get their children into the bilingual classes so they can learn Spanish, says Mrs. Morales.

What is the program's goal? ``Truly bi-literate'' students by the time they reach sixth grade, able to function well in both English and Spanish, she explains.

The educational theory being applied at Heritage School holds that children well grounded in one language (e.g., Spanish) can move with relative ease into another. Concepts learned in the first language -- math or reading skills, for example -- are readily ``transferred'' into the second one, according to this theory.

This method could loosely be labeled a ``maintenance'' program, which means the child's first language is maintained while the new language is being learned. Opponents argue that this kind of approach tends to delay the mastery of English, subordinating that goal to an emphasis on a student's ancestral language and culture.

Indeed, Hispanic parents determined to have their children learn English are sometimes wary of the Heritage School program, admits Evelyn Nance, another first-grade bilingual teacher. An explanation of how the program works usually dissolves that wariness, she says. ``I have not gotten any kind of negative comment from parents once they've learned what the program really is like.''

What about Anglo parents concerned that the bilingual classes eat into normal instructional time for their children? Again, explanation of how academic subjects are dealt with in the program helps, says Mrs. Nance. And anyhow, she adds, ``I feel they [English-speaking students] lose much more when 10 or 12 limited-English speaking kids are dumped into a room with a `sink or swim' philosophy.''

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