January 16, 2007

Englewood Program Creates Bilingual Kids ; Students Are Immersed in Spanish and English


ENGLEWOOD - Fourth-grader Shaylah Brewer is reading a story she helped write about a ship's captain whose boat has run aground on the rocks. The remarkable thing is, Shaylah, who was born in Englewood and raised speaking only English, is doing it in what sounds like perfect Spanish.

When pressed, one of Shaylah's classmates, Colombian-born Gabriel Acosta, offers only a small suggestion.

"El con-DUC-tor," Gabriel said, drawing out the middle syllable of the Spanish word for driver.

Such is the scene in the Englewood public school district's dual- language immersion program, a kind of bilingual, foreign-language and regular elementary program rolled into one.

Special classes of native English- and native Spanish-speaking students are mixed together starting in kindergarten and receive instruction in both languages. The classes stay together through sixth grade, during which time Spanish-speaking students acquire English, and the English students pick up fluency or near-fluency in a foreign language.

About 10 percent of Englewood's approximately 2,800 students are enrolled in the program, which by many indications is a success. Demand is so high the school must hold a lottery to determine which English-speaking children can enroll.

"They're doing the same thing in two different languages," said Gennie Luciano, whose fourth-grade son is in the program. "It if wasn't for that program, my son would not be in the Englewood school system."

The programs were pioneered nationally in the 1960s, but in the 1990s their numbers ballooned from a little over 30 to more than 250. Today more than 329 schools across the country are using some form of dual-language program. The vast majority combine Spanish and English instruction, but there are a handful of French and English, Chinese and English, Korean and English and even Russian and Haitian Creole programs.

Part of the reason for the success, proponents say, is that in addition to being effective language programs, dual-language classes help students out-test their non-dual peers in almost all subjects, perhaps because of the additional cognitive workout that learning in two languages provides. One recently released national study, by researchers at George Mason University, found that dual-language programs resulted in the highest test scores of students of any kind of bilingual education program.

In Englewood, the data are even more persuasive. In the last five years, students in the dual-programs have consistently outscored their mainstream peers. For example, in 2004, the percentages of fourth-graders in a non-dual school that were scoring at or above proficiency in reading and math were 75 percent and 53 percent, respectively, while the percentages for the dual-language students were 95.7 percent and 82.6 percent.

The typical class setup at Lincoln Elementary in Englewood features two teachers one working in English, the other Spanish. Students switch between classes each day, and spend one-week blocks in each class learning such other subjects as math and science. Some textbooks are mirror images of each other except one is written in English and the other in Spanish.

"It's a complex curriculum," said program director Mercedes Telez- Gil. "The teachers have to keep up because you're really dealing with two classes."

The programs aren't completely hitch-free. They can be difficult to sell to parents at first: English-speaking parents sometimes worry that their children will be overwhelmed, and non-English- speaking parents worry the program will discourage their kids from learning English quickly enough. A proposed Korean and English dual program in Fort Lee was shelved over the summer because administrators couldn't recruit enough participants.

In fact, English-language acquisition among non-native English speakers in the program can be slightly delayed approaching third grade a crucial time for testing under the strict No Child Left Behind laws, said Julie Sugarman, a researcher at the Center for Applied Linguistics, an educational research and consulting company in Washington, D.C.

But Sugarman said those differences are erased the longer students stay in the program. She cited studies showing that by high- school, non-native English speakers are outscoring peers educated in traditional ESL classes.

"[English acquisition] doesn't happen as fast, but it happens better in the long run," Sugarman said.


E-mail: [email protected]

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Fast facts

School districts with dual-language programs in the U.S.

California 65

Texas 24

New York 17

Illinois 10

Massachusetts 7

New Jersey 2

Source: Center for Applied Linguistics

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