Want to learn English? Speak math and science

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

`FINDING Out/Discubrimiento'' is an educational droplet having a large ripple effect in this community. A means of teaching the English language to elementary-grade Hispanic children, the bilingual education program has sent ripples of confidence and understanding through Passaic's adult Hispanic population.

As program administrators relate, many Hispanics have felt estranged from the American education process.

``They've been afraid if they made a mistake people would laugh at them,'' explains Tony Perez, who heads bilingual efforts in the Passaic school district.

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Dr. Annette Lopez coordinated Passaic's pilot FO/D in 1985-87 on behalf of Fairleigh-Dickinson University and is now helping to establish the program in at least two other Garden State school districts. She says, ``The traditional Hispanic attitude has been that the school is the authority figure, and `Who am I to get involved?'''

Half of Passaic's 50,000 inhabitants are Hispanic. Latins streamed to the largely blue-collar city from Puerto Rico and Cuba during the 1950s and '60s, lured by the promise of jobs and relatively affordable housing.

But two major asbestos manufacturing companies closed, for example, and a 1985 fire swept the industrial zone, causing large-scale layoffs. These hardships, coupled with more general Hispanic unease with American schooling, helped boost the dropout rate for Passaic's Hispanic students to one of the highest in the state.

Negative circumstances, then, persuaded a hopeful school board to welcome Fairleigh-Dickinson and ``Finding Out/Discubrimiento'' to this district.

Passaic's program is an adaptation of a concept developed at Stanford University in California. The Stanford model teaches English by way of science and math lessons. In Passaic's first pilot year, some 300 second- through sixth-graders gained self-assurance in English via activities such as making periscopes; studies of clocks including the sundial, Chinese water clock, French sand bottle, and pendulum-based time pieces; one unit sportively titled ``Measuring A Big Animal''; and - last but not least - close looks at a drop of water.

Using illustrated cards, Discubrimiento simultaneously brings in the other disciplines: English language concepts and vocabulary, math concepts and systems like metrics, and social studies, i.e., geographic and historical background of the clocks.

Parent participation is important. During that first year in Passaic, 30 Hispanic parents - some of whom had never before set foot in the schools - were invited to take part. They joined small groups for lessons complementary to those given their children.

Most of the parents emerged with the skills and determination to reinforce their children's schooling. Some took more training and are now working in the schools as teacher aides.

Evelyn Bonafe heard about Discubrimiento from a friend and joined so she could help her eight-year-old daughter with homework. Mrs. Bonafe says she and her peers were at first ``a little scared'' when confronted by English plus centimeters. ``But we put ourselves together, and we worked at it as a group. We accomplished it by understanding each other.''

Bonafe plans to earn a degree and go into teaching. ``FO/D was a lot of fun. It wasn't at all boring,'' she says of the experience.

At the same time, there has been measurable progress. Scores on exams required of all New Jersey students, including the California Achievement Test, show marked improvement for Passaic FO/D children in reading and math.

The program has also helped increase the professionalism of the Passaic faculty. Selected teachers received nine graduate or undergraduate credits for a year of FO/D-tailored courses given by Fairleigh-Dickinson professors at the college and in the city schools.

Talma Addes, director of Passaic's FO/D, reports that the city has made a three-year commitment to the program which will substantially widen the circles of children, parents, and teachers served. In fact, Mrs. Addes suggests, FO/D could comfortably extend to any community where residents have asked the question ``Who am I to get involved?''

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