District rolls out guidelines for bilingual program
Dallas Morning News
November 17, 2005

Irving: Rules set daily time limits for English, Spanish

  The goal of Irving's bilingual education program seemed clear: In pre-kindergarten children would learn 90 percent of the time in their native Spanish. By the fifth grade they would learn 90 percent in English.

  But there was no districtwide plan for the years in between, and the amount of each language used in the classroom has often varied depending on the teacher.

  So the district rolled out new bilingual guidelines this fall. They outline how many hours should be spent at each grade level teaching in English and how many in Spanish.

  "We're spending too much time in Spanish," Superintendent Jack Singley said. "We need to move students more quickly into English. We're learning hat when some students leave the elementary program, they're not ready for mainstream English in middle school. That's telling you something's not right."

  By middle school, students must take state assessment tests in English, so the pressure is on to ensure that they are fluent by then. Children may leave the bilingual program earlier than fifth grade if they meet certain requirements.

  Last May, a group of principals and staff met to update the district's model. It now outlines the minimum number of hours of English instruction each day in language arts, science and math.

  "Change is difficult," said Dora Morón, director of the district's ESL, bilingual and migrant education. "But sometimes it helps teachers to give them a plan of action. It gives them more structure."

  About 34 percent of the enrollment in Irving schools – or 11,200 students – has limited proficiency in English. Just 10 years ago enrollment was 19 percent, or about 5,000 students.

  "As the program grew larger and larger, we could not get a handle on individual campuses and what the were doing," said Tonie Garza, former director of the district's ESL, bilingual and migrant education and now a consultant. "As the years went by, we started to see kids lagging behind in their English foundation."

  Ms. Garza, who helped design the guidelines, said that while veteran teachers may resist such strict schedules, many teachers with less than five years of experience may need more structure. Another goal is to make teaching more consistent for students who move around within the district, administrators said.

  Teacher schedules or sample "day cards" show how teachers should break up their time. Students in second grade, for example, would spend at least one hour on language arts, one hour on science and 30 minutes on math – all in English. By fifth grade, those times would increase to two hours of language arts, one hour of science and one and a half hours of math.

  "That model is to make sure you're teaching the English because it's really easy to not," said Sarah Sasson, a kindergarten bilingual teacher at Farine Elementary. "Then teachers will put it in their lesson plans ... they're very specific about what they want."

  Ms. Sasson said she makes it a point to engage children in conversational English, not just teach them simple words.

  How the model will trickle down to every campus remains to be seen, as it was just introduced.

  "Ideally, it's a perfect plan," said Karime Rubio, lead bilingual teacher at Good Elementary. "But it should be directed at a child who has been born here in the U.S. and has been with the education system since the beginning. ... We get a lot of newcomers who are just coming in, and it doesn't take into account those students."

  One teacher training handout states that the new time and teaching model "is not an option." It also points out to "make sure we don't place all NES [non-English speaking] children in one class, then wonder why our children are still speaking Spanish and not enough English."

  Administrators said mixing children of different English ability levels in a classroom is necessary.

  Transitional bilingual models such as Irving's – which slowly phase out Spanish – are the most common in the state. But the district is implementing more dual-language programs, in which both English and Spanish speakers learn together. They alternate – speaking one day in English and then one day in Spanish – to provide more of a 50-50 split throughout their elementary education.

  Farine Elementary recently joined Brandenburg Elementary in starting a dual-language model. At Farine there are two dual kindergarten classrooms.

  Ms. Morón said she is encouraging more schools to consider dual-language programs. Schools must study the program for a year before adopting it. She said the model allows both languages to be equally valued.

 "If you have a bilingual model, you're dropping the Spanish language, so you end up just with English," she said. "With the dual language model you're adding a language; you're not taking away a language."

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