[EDLING:848] Two-language school is seen as muy bueno
Francis M Hult
fmhult at DOLPHIN.UPENN.EDU
Mon Jun 13 14:25:44 UTC 2005
Wisconsin State Journal
Two-language school is seen as muy bueno
Doug Erickson Wisconsin State Journal
June 11, 2005
Nine months ago, Gabriel Mayhew, 6, spoke no Spanish.
Now he knows the Spanish alphabet and can speak full sentences in his second language.
Rosa Ruiz Perez, 6, spoke only Spanish last August, which worried her immigrant parents as
they prepared her for school in a new country. Now Rosa says she loves school and loves to
The two students met during the inaugural year of Madison's Nuestro Mundo Community
School, a Spanish immersion program that hopes to crack the statewide problem of Hispanic
students scoring, as a group, far below their white peers on state tests.
The dual-immersion approach, still rare in Wisconsin but more common in other states,
embraces both English and Spanish, with the goal of equal fluency by fifth grade. To
succeed, it counts on the buy- in of English speakers.
Housed in Allis Elementary on the East Side, Nuestro Mundo is a public charter school - a
parent-initiated specialty program that gets tax dollars but is freed from some
constraints of traditional schools.
Viewed skeptically at first by district administrators, the school was pushed through with
support from the School Board and is being closely watched for its potential to alter the
district's teaching methods.
Parents at the school acknowledge bumps this first year, but many say they're impressed
with their children's progress.
"I think the school year is ending on a very satisfying note," said parent Sarah Jossart.
"(The school) took some time to evolve since we started from scratch, but I think we all
feel pretty good now and are excited about next year."
Most are returning Of the 51 students who started the year, 44 are planning to return as
first-graders. School officials and others say the retention rate suggests parent
satisfaction and a promising future.
"There are no red flags there," said Gary Hargett, a Portland, Ore., based consultant who
advises states on educating limited-English students.
Nuestro Mundo's own research found that some dual- immersion programs lose up to half
their students from year to year, said Jane Belmore, assistant superintendent for Madison
elementary schools. "That was one of our concerns," she said. Nuestro Mundo's retention
rate "absolutely" is impressive, she said.
Retention is considered critical to the school's success because the true value of the
program doesn't kick in until fifth grade, when research shows children in language
immersion schools really take off and surpass other students academically. Parents are
warned there could be a learning lag early on.
Of the 51 students who began last fall, two left the first week because of personal
transportation issues. Five others completed the year but won't be back. Of those, two
families are moving out of state and a third is moving too far from the school to commute.
The final two families are not returning due to disappointment.
The school doesn't yet have a firm grip on "developmentally appropriate" activities, said
Karen Craig, whose son, Philip, attended the school.
Craig said she felt the school focused too much on making students sit still, on
disciplining them, on assigning homework and on teaching language skills through drills.
She would prefer "a more positive learning experience" with more unstructured play and
hands-on activities, she said.
But Craig said her son liked his teacher and that the staff did a wonderful job of
instilling positive attitudes about Mexico and Spanish. She thinks the school will improve
and hasn't ruled out coming back one day.
Brook and Anne Johnson have many of the same concerns as Craig.
"We liked the Spanish part. It was incredible. Our son learned tons and tons of Spanish,"
said Brook Johnson. "The part we didn't like was that they seemed to pressure the children
too much to learn to read and to do things that maybe our son wasn't ready to do."
The constant homework - though not difficult or lengthy - stressed out their son, and
there wasn't enough free time, Johnson said.
Teacher Ana Salcido defended the use of homework. Her previous teaching experience was
primarily with low- income children whose parents had little advanced education, she said.
She has found that homework is especially critical for this population because it
reinforces the work done in the classroom and teaches responsibility.
Principal Gary Diaz Zehrbach said it is hard to please all parents but that he's confident
the school's approach is working for most students.
An 'awesome' year In kindergarten at Nuestro Mundo, math, science and social studies are
taught 90 percent of the time in Spanish. This proportion stays the same in first grade,
then gradually changes until, by fifth grade, the split is 50-50.
In one of the more significant changes to occur at Nuestro Mundo, the school switched its
approach to teaching language arts halfway through the school year. Initially, students
got 90 minutes of daily literacy instruction in their native language. But after the
winter break, even language arts was taught solely in Spanish to all students.
The change was made because research shows that intense use of Spanish in early grades
produces the best Spanish-related outcomes in the end, at no cost to English language
development or to academic achievement, Zehrbach said.
English-speaking students are able to adapt to this lopsided approach because of the
dominance of their native language in the larger society, he said. Also, switching back
and forth between languages can confuse students and slow their progress, he said.
Miriam Mueller-Owens said her daughter, Sierra, 6, really progressed rapidly in Spanish
after the change was made. "She's come a lot farther than I expected her to," she said.
Kelly Mayhew, Gabriel's mother, said her son's literacy in both Spanish and English
"For us, the school year was just awesome," she said.
Teachers don't translate the curriculum into English but instead use visual aids,
repetition, routine and themes to reach students. The program also counts on students
teaching each other, an approach called "modeling." That's why a 50-50 split between
native English speakers and native Spanish speakers is preferred.
This year, the balance was off, with only 25 percent of students native Spanish speakers.
Next year's kindergarten class is expected to be closer to a 50-50 split. Zehrbach said he
couldn't point to any particular thing to explain the improvement.
Students were tested on their English and Spanish skills the last two weeks of school.
Those test results were not available at press time.
Looking ahead The school expands to first grade this fall and will add a grade level each
year through fifth, until the school has about 250 students.
The incoming class of kindergartners will have about 50 students, and there's a waiting
list of 32 more. All three original teachers will be back, as well as three new teachers.
"I'm a big advocate of being bilingual," Salcido said. "These students are going to grow
up and be comfortable around other languages and people from other cultures. That's really
a great gift to give to kids."
Parent Madu Enwemnwa said his native English- speaking son, Isioma, 5, recently attended a
party at the home of a Hispanic family and was praised by the hosts for his Spanish.
"He was able to keep up the conversation," his father said. "It just blew me away."
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