Georgia's first bilingual public school opens

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun Aug 27 17:02:55 UTC 2006

'Mom, I'm a nino!': Georgia's first bilingual public school opens

The Associated Press - FOREST PARK, Ga.

On his first day of school, 5-year-old Al-Khafid Sharrieff Muhammad came
home to tell his mom he didn't understand what anyone was saying in class.
Just as she was second-guessing sending her child to Georgia's first dual
language public school, he grinned and started rattling off all the
Spanish words he learned. "Do you know what a nino is? It's me," Rashida
Muhammad recalled Al-Khafid as saying. While the country is divided over
the role of immigrants and the importance of a national language, some
English- and Spanish-speaking parents in this Atlanta suburb are bypassing
the debate by sending their children to Georgia's first bilingual public
school, where the goal is to have all students literate in both languages
by fifth grade.

Their motivations are as diverse as the little kids excitedly chatting
with one another in Unidos Dual Language Charter School's one-story
building in a residential neighborhood near Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta
International Airport. There are Hispanic immigrants who are worried their
U.S.-born children will not know Spanish, and Americans who want to give
their children a competitive edge, all spurring an increase in bilingual
education across the country.

"I hope people start looking at a diversity of languages as a must, and
stop looking at America as a one-language country," said Pedro Ruiz,
president of the Washington-based National Association for Bilingual
Education. Teaching children in their native tongue as well as English has
been common throughout U.S. history. The historical goal, like that of
most language programs targeting immigrants, is to help students become
more proficient in English without falling too far behind in coursework.

The predominance of English, however, has been the underlying value _ with
bilingual education losing ground whenever the debate over immigration
heats up, said Donna Christian, president of the Center for Applied
Linguistics. In May, the Senate passed two measures declaring English the
nation's official, "common and unifying" language. But the increasing
desire to preserve the immigrants' heritage and the economic recognition
that being bilingual is a plus on a resume is leading to a growing number
of dual language schools like Unidos. There are more than 300 such
programs in the U.S., the first of which opened in 1962 in Florida, and
most teach Spanish and English, according to the Center for Applied

Those programs aim to make children equally literate in two idioms while
sending the message that starting with a language other than English isn't
an handicap. "It encourages cross-cultural understanding," said James
Crawford, an author on U.S. language policy and a founder of the Institute
for Language and Education Policy. "Minority kids are no longer recognized
as having a problem."

The 132 students at Unidos get about 70 percent of their reading, writing,
social sciences and math in Spanish, and 30 percent in English, said
school founder Dell Perry. That balance scared away some English-speaking
parents in this predominantly black county, where only about one out of 10
residents are of Hispanic descent. When Perry won approval from the
Clayton County school board to open the charter school, she received
several e-mails from people upset with the decision, including some who
complained that "those people need to learn English."

Contrary to the perception that bilingual education is for immigrants who
don't want to assimilate, two-thirds of Unidos students are
English-speakers. They include some immigrants' children who are likely to
forget their heritage tongue unless they keep studying it and others whose
parents want them to learn Spanish because "it's sort of where things are
going," Perry said. The seven teachers, all of whom have at least a basic
knowledge of both languages, use only one language in the classroom and
rely on hand gestures, miming and lots of repetition to keep the
children's attention.

During the first two weeks of school, they've been learning about colors,
numbers, the month of August and the letters A and E _ as well as about
making friends with children from vastly different backgrounds. "Kids
who've never seen Hispanics before _ they want to eat beside each other,
they fight to sit beside each other," said Lynda Quinones, who teaches
English at Unidos. "If it wasn't this environment, they'd probably be
attacking each other."

As he was getting out of class one recent afternoon, David Mata, a
6-year-old whose parents immigrated from central Mexico 10 years ago, said
shyly his favorites about school are learning to write, to draw and the
two friends he's made. His mother, Micaela Mata, who speaks English "more
or less," said she hopes David will teach her because she was a teacher in
Mexico and dreams of becoming one at Unidos. She wants David to be a
"well-educated child"  and have a job that's "not too hard," not one of
the labor-intensive, blue-collar jobs that are typical among immigrants.

A vast majority of Hispanics at all educational levels believe that
immigrants' children need to be taught English, according to a June survey
by the Pew Hispanic Center. Similarly, many parents with no Hispanic ties
are pushing for dual language schools because they realize knowing a
foreign language is an asset, Ruiz said. Yolanda Hood enrolled her
5-year-old son, Thaddeus, in Unidos with the hope he's young enough to
learn Spanish effortlessly. She said that will help him thrive in a
country that's increasingly diverse.

"We'd be really arrogant to expect everybody to speak English," she said.


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