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Language learning goes both ways

by Reid Williams

EDWARDS – In January, Edwards Elementary second-grade teacher Eva Doblas gave her students a science test on volcanoes. It wasn’t easy: It was 18 questions, all of which were short-answer essay prompts. Writing sentences is never easy for second-graders, but every single student earned an A.

The really impressive part? The students, native English speakers, read the test and wrote their answers in Spanish, a language they began studying only four months before.

Edwards Elementary is home to an innovative program, a dual language bilingual curriculum where Spanish- and English-speaking students learn each others’ language side-by-side. Teachers in kindergarten, first and second grade work in pairs, one for each language, and the students rotate between the classrooms.

The students receive about 45 minutes of instruction daily in the second language. They switch back-and-forth in languages for concept, or background as well as their subject classes, such as social studies and science.

It’s a lot of hustle-and-bustle, and it takes extensive coordination by teachers and administrators, but they all agree it’s working wonders.

“It really is amazing,” said first-grade teacher Carol Gallegos, before beginning a Spanish discussion about the day and the weather with 10 blond-headed students. “They’re learning a lot. It helps the social interaction among the students, and I can definitely say the English-speaking kids are reading and writing better than ever in Spanish.”

The right combination

Several things had to fall into place for the program to come to life – funding, Spanish-speaking teachers and the approval of the Eagle County school board – but school faculty give the most credit to the parents.

Over the past decade, Edwards Elementary staff members have watched the student immigrant population balloon. The school currently is more than 50 percent English-language learners. Many American parents, concerned about how the influx would affect their children and the school’s resources, pulled their children out of the classroom and enrolled them in a nearby charter school.

Other parents didn’t see it that way.

“This new population isn’t a challenge, it’s what makes us special,” said kindergarten teacher Emily Hill, who conducts her classes in Spanish. “The parents said, “Why do this just for the ESL kids? We want our kids to be bilingual, too.'”

Parents Bambi Forbes, Virginia Reyes and Joette Gilbert spearheaded the project. They held community meetings to see if other parents were interested. They brought in consultants from a 10-year-old Boulder bilingual school to guide them. They got the teachers, the principal and, eventually, the school board behind the program. By the time school opened in September, 95 English- and Spanish-speaking students had enrolled in the program and there was a waiting list for others.

“I grew up in El Paso (Texas) so speaking Spanish was a matter of survival,” said program secretary Bev Rasmussen, whose first-grade daughter is in the dual language program. “When the idea came up, I thought it was great. I want my daughter to grow up and have the Spanish just tumble out of her mouth.”

And to ask her daughter, Elise, it seems to be working.

“Que haces, Elise?” What are you doing?

“Trazo,” she said. I am drawing.

“Que es eso?” What is that?

“Es una casa,” she said. It’s a house.

“Es su casa?” Is it your house?

“Si, es mi casa,” she said. Yes, it is my house.

After the last bell of the school day, young Elise Rasmussen went back to speaking English. She doesn’t understand everything, she said, as a recent spring break trip to Juarez, Mexico proved.

“I like it,” she said. “But when you first do it, it’s hard. Sometimes, the teacher talks and we don’t even know what to do.”

The school’s faculty members hope to see the program grow each year. They want to add a grade-level at a time so students can continue to study in the dual-language format in middle school, and high school, they hope. But there are wrinkles to work out, and larger, political obstacles down the road.

The students still self-segregate themselves. Teachers say they often have to remind children to partner up with a speaker of the opposite language, or break up play groups. They have a sense the program is helping both student groups perform better academically, but the true measure for the state – CSAP scores – won’t come out until this summer.

What has parents and teachers most worried is a proposed ballot initiative to amend the state Constitution. An anti-bilingual education group, English for the Children, hopes to ask voters in November to make such programs illegal. The measure would hold teachers financially liable for using the methods employed at Edwards and prohibit them from holding political offices for five years after being caught.

“It’s scary,” Hill said, looking around her kindergarten classrooms at the Spanish on the walls. “This gives every student something to bring to the table. They’re the teachers. And this is what their parents chose for them. Taking that away is taking away local control.”

What about Summit County?

While some Summit school board members and district teachers have expressed interest in the Edwards program, there are no immediate plans to pursue a similar program in Summit County.

Reid Williams can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 237 or rwilliams@summitdaily.com.


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