Dateline Texas

Two Languages, One Classroom


Outside, dust swirls among the modest homes and trailers of Ysleta, a semi-rural community on the outskirts of El Paso. Inside Alicia Chacon Elemen-tary, the exemplary dual language school in Texas, the air is dense with activity and the babble of languages. A third-grade student in Maribel Martinez’s room is struggling with a chapter on community in her social studies class. “I can’t read very well in English,” she confides. “But I’m a good reader in Spanish.” Down the hall eighth graders are rehearsing skits in Spanish. Out in the main atrium, girls are doing tumbling moves to German instructions, while another group practices karate in Japanese a few feet away.

Alicia Chacon is one of a growing number of schools in Texas and elsewhere in the country that are replacing traditional bilingual programs with dual language programs. Critics of bilingual education, like California millionaire Ron Unz, have argued that bilingual programs have become low-performing lagoons in schools–that students never really learn either their native language or English well, crippling their ability to acquire knowledge or develop talents. That argument fueled anti-bilingual education referendums in California and Arizona, and similar political winds are now stirring in Colorado and Massachusetts.

Dual language immersion programs, however, sidestep the issues that have ensnared their bilingual predecessors. While the primary goal of bilingual programs has been to move children out of their first language and into English as painlessly as possible, dual language programs aim to build fluency and literacy in at least two languages. For non-English speaking students in dual language programs, facility in the student’s first language–in Texas this is most commonly Spanish–is cultivated and expanded. Later, once a student can read, she begins to learn English. For English speakers, meanwhile, dual language programs offer an opportunity to learn from native speakers and develop real fluency in elementary school. Instead of waiting for high school or college, even a year of study abroad, dual language students get to learn a language through immersion at their local public school.

Dual language “is a more logical way to approach bilingual education,” according to Dora Johnson, research associate at the Center for Applied Linguistics, a policy and research nonprofit organization in Washington D.C. And dual language suits those administrators, teachers, and parents who have come to value competency in a second language–as an important job skill in the global economy, and often as a link to a child’s family and cultural background. Dual language programs are “still below the radar” says Johnson; while the attack on bilingual ed continues, dual language is thriving.

“People come in asking for dual language,” says Antonia Tapia, bilingual liaison for the Ysleta district. “They tell us, ‘We lost the language. I don’t want that to happen to my kids.’ Bob Schulte, principal at Alicia Chacon, hears parents talking about connections across generations. “When you can’t speak to your grandparents,” he said, “it takes something out of your life.”

Schulte grew up in Ysleta not speaking Spanish. He says he was “picked on and discriminated against” in an area where people assumed everyone, Anglo or Hispanic, knew Spanish. He remembers desperately wishing he knew the language, while being held in high regard by teachers in school because of his facility with English. “Other kids were struggling in all-English subjects and I wonder what it would have been like if I had been learning Spanish.” When one language is allowed to dominate, Schulte says, resentment grows between people and groups.

Schulte visited one of the first dual language “two-way immersion” schools, in San Jose, California, and returned determined to begin a program in Ysleta. With support from Tony Trujillo, a former Ysleta superintendent fondly remembered for his courage and innovative spirit, Schulte essentially built Alicia Chacon Elementary from scratch, developing the newly opened school into a magnet school that draws students from El Paso and neighboring districts. He hired all his teachers with the understanding that they would be teaching in a dual language school. Every child attends by his or her parents’ choice.

At Chacon, where 90 percent of students are Hispanic, all kindergarten, first-, and second-grade students–whether they are Spanish dominant or English dominant–learn to read and write in Spanish, and 80 percent of their school day is spent in Spanish. Ten percent is in English and ten percent in a third language. The balance between Spanish and English gradually shifts up until fifth grade, when all students learn 45 percent of their subjects in Spanish, and 45 percent in English, and ten percent in their third language. By eighth grade, nearly all the students are truly bilingual in Spanish and English, and have made big strides toward mastering a third language.

The school is so popular that admission is by lottery, with a waiting list at all grade levels. With a school population of more than 70 percent of its students on free and reduced lunch, Chacon has test scores to brag about. Although in the early grades, less than 70 percent of the students typically pass the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) test, the standard statewide exam, by fifth grade the scores dramatically improve–more than 90 percent of students passed in 2000–and scores remained high in the subsequent grades. Last year 36 of Chacon’s eighth graders took the Spanish Advanced Placement test, normally the preserve of ambitious high school seniors. Thirty-one earned a grade high enough to earn college credit.

At last count, Texas school districts had secured over 20 grants from the Department of Education’s Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Affairs to develop dual language immersion programs, and at least 38 schools have programs established. In the last legislative session, state Senator Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) sponsored and passed legislation to affirm the state’s commitment to dual language programs. (The bill expressly allows districts to create dual language immersion programs although it provides no financial assistance. It also requires the Commissioner of Education to develop standards and a way to recognize exemplary programs.) Zaffirini also sponsored a largely symbolic, open-ended resolution that all graduates from Texas schools speak English plus at least one other language. “I’m always looking for opportunities to make the point,” she said, referring to her support of bilingualism. “It is so wrong to use bilingual programs as a remedial tool so that children forget their first language as they master English. Then in high school, if they are in the gifted program, they might have the opportunity to learn Spanish.”

Dual language programs are not always easy to get started, even with federal assistance. According to criteria established by the Center for Applied Linguistics, programs work best when at least a third, but no more than two thirds, of the students in a dual language class are dominant in a language other than English. And to best serve this ideal student body, schools must find enough teachers who are fluent in both languages, not just bilingual-certified (which can mean marginally fluent, and not necessarily capable of teaching in the second language), and provide consistent support from administrators. TAAS testing and its emphasis on accountability and measurement may also hamper dual language initiatives, since its benefits are not something measured by the test.

One school district that boldly began a dual language program five years ago in a conservative rural district is now struggling, despite millions of dollars in grant money and the determination of a few leaders. While many schools are seeing the success evident in Ysleta, the stories of failure and frustration illuminate the obstacles that serious language programs face.

The Title 7 dual language office in La Pryor sits in a converted woodshop a few yards from the elementary school. In a cozy office there decorated with dozens of apples, program founder Diana Perez directs the school district’s $2.2 million five-year grant. An affable, open person who wishes her parents had taught her Spanish, Perez has worked hard to master the language and is proud of one of her daughters who is bilingual. La Pryor is about 120 miles southwest of San Antonio, near Uvalde and Crystal City, out on the vast flat plain of south central Texas. At one time an agricultural hub, the town experienced a brief oil boom in the ’80s but has steadily lost residents over the past 10 years. Today the district serves 406 students in grades kindergarten through 12. Ninety-three percent of the children are Hispanic and 84 percent are on free and reduced lunch.

For three decades, La Pryor had a traditional bilingual program for the limited and non-English speaking students in the district. Year after year, TAAS scores were low, and there was a dissatisfaction with various styles of bilingual programs and a sense among teachers and administrators that an alternative might help raise achievement while accomplishing the broader goals of bilingualism. But dual language has not taken hold in La Pryor, despite the federal money and despite the best intentions of its sponsors.

A July 2001 report by the state comptroller’s office, which performs periodic audits of school districts, found enough problems in La Pryor to waylay dual language or any other program, including low morale, high turnover, a contentious and micromanaging school board, financial mismanagement, and low test scores. Only 49.7 percent of all students passed the TAAS in 2000 compared to a statewide average of 79.9 percent. In visiting La Pryor and speaking with administrators and teachers, I detected a sense of shame and defeat there, and some confusion. Teachers like Linda Valdez and Martha Gonzales said that they are reading aloud in Spanish for about 30 minutes at the end of the day and use Spanish occasionally to talk to Spanish dominant students. They readily admit that the goal of dual language immersion has contracted to become English with a bit of Spanish sprinkled in. Scores are up in some areas of the TAAS, particularly among Spanish dominant children, but perhaps not enough to save the program.

Since the dual language program began in La Pryor five years ago, five superintendents and three elementary school principals have come and gone. Like many small, property-poor districts it has trouble retaining teachers because of what the jobs pay; La Pryor offers just above $24,000 for a beginning teacher. Bilingual teachers get an additional $1,500, but that’s still not enough to compete with neighboring districts, much less cities like San Antonio or Austin. Only five of the original twelve elementary teachers who were there when the program started remain, and many of the elementary teachers who are expected to teach in both languages are not genuinely fluent in both. “When the teacher is bilingual, we see results,” said Diana Perez. “Only about a third of our teachers are true bilinguals and so Spanish is now secondary in the classroom, not equal with English.”

Teachers already on edge wonder whether trying to teach in two languages will further set back the district’s test scores. “We feel a lot of pressure from TAAS,” Valdez said. “Everyone is asking, ‘How will this help me raise scores?'”

When I first spoke with her, in September, Perez assumed that the dual language program would be shut down after the grant money runs out in June 2002. By mid-October, she thought the school board might agree to restructure the program and continue with fewer students and teachers. A final decision probably won’t take place until next spring. Eddie Ramirez, the current superintendent, and Jina Piccini, elementary school principal, declined to comment for this story.

Yet even though dual language at La Pryor has all but capsized, no one there is suggesting a return to the old days of bilingual education. Perhaps they will find a middle ground with a dual language program expressly for Spanish dominant children and voluntary for everyone else.

Meanwhile, in Ysleta a few weeks ago, Miguel Angel Rosales, a teacher from Mexico, listened and corrected as a few dozen junior high students performed skits in Spanish. It was impossible to tell which of the students were Spanish dominant and which were English dominant. The students all giggled and backed into the water fountain and enjoyed exaggerating certain parts. Everyone could speak both languages, separately when they were performing, mixed together in a happy jumble when they were talking among themselves.

Bob Schulte likes to emphasize the egalitarian nature of dual language instruction. Everyone has something to teach everyone else. Language is not a barrier between groups, but a shared challenge. “Vamos a presentar our play,” said one student performer. “Did you memorize sus lineas, ya?”

Belle Zars is a writer living in San Antonio.