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Model bilingual education. But teacher costs double in `dual immersion' classes

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 25, 1987


THE vote this month by the teachers' union in Los Angeles to abolish current methods of ``transitional bilingual'' education for that city's 150,000 limited-English-speaking children is just the latest in a series of protests against what is seen by many as clumsy and ineffective education. The New York Times, for example, which serves a city with 86,000 students whose primary language is not English, has endorsed the Los Angeles teachers' action. Cultural and educational tempers are flaring - among both ``English only'' activists and Hispanic coalitions.

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Here in a residential Washington neighborhood though, a public elementary school with a student body that is 60 percent Hispanic has quietly been providing a bilingual model that both groups can support.

By Christmas, first-graders at the Oyster School are reading - in both English and Spanish. By third grade, the children are not only fluent in both languages - but are also two grade levels above average and in the 93rd testing percentile of all schoolchildren in the United States (on an all-English test).

Oyster does not use the typical ``transitional bilingual'' approach - in which students are taught in their native language while being given doses of English along the way. Nor does it practice ``total immersion'' - popularized in Canadian public schools, where English-speaking students are ``immersed'' almost wholly in French.

At Oyster, all children learn in two languages from Day 1. It's ``dual immersion'' - 50 percent of instruction is in Spanish, 50 percent in English. Each class has two teachers - one for each language. The goal is bilingualism: Hispanic students are not trying desperately to put their home language behind them. Instead, all students are learning a new language.

``We treat English and Spanish both as foreign languages - and all the kids are in the same boat,'' says Oyster principal Paquita Holland. ``They all struggle together at first.'' (As a result, Oyster children work closely with one another - one reason for the school's success in racial integration.)

Nor is there a trick to the method or pedagogy at Oyster. The subject matter comes directly from the District of Columbia curriculum. Science, math, and social studies may be taught in English one semester or Spanish the next, but there are no special textbooks or techniques - except in reading, where even the youngest students are issued adult textbooks (small print, no pictures) and taken slowly through basic mechanics: phonics, syllables, words. Children are not tested in advance.

``We upset educators who want to turn bilingual into a complicated method,'' says Ms. Holland. ``Bilingual education is a medium, not a methodology. When you do it right, the kids learn quickly.''

``You would think bilingual would be harder,'' said one second-grade teacher. ``But it's easier. The kids are thinking more.''

As fifth-grader Lucia Duncan puts it, ``When you start early, like when you learn to count [in two languages] in kindergarten, it just seems normal after a while.'' Even at the earliest ages, the children do not mix up the languages.