School's success story

Dual-language program gains national attention

Karina Bland
The Arizona Republic
Jan. 21, 2006 12:00 AM


Dozens of educators from across the country toured Herrera School for the Fine Arts near downtown Phoenix this week, curious to see how a program that teaches students in English and Spanish thrives in a state that bans bilingual education.

Members of the National Association for Bilingual Education met with the elementary school students, who switched easily from English to Spanish, to talk about why they like the program.

Melissa Sillei, 12, told them, "Many people say if you speak more than one language, you have more possibilities to get a better job."

She also wants to learn Italian and French.

Under state law, schools can offer dual-language classes and many do but only if students are proficient in English. Principal Tracey Pastor and her teachers found a creative way of interpreting the law to provide even students with limited English-skills instruction in two languages.

The program is held up as a national model, and Pastor was asked to talk about it at the association's annual conference at Phoenix Civic Plaza through today. She brought along some children to share their success stories.

In 2000, voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 203, banning bilingual education and requiring schools to use mostly English-immersion programs to teach children with limited English skills.

How best to educate the state's 160,000 children classified as English-language learners is controversial and adds challenges for schools struggling to meet state and federal academic standards. In Arizona, English-language learners have continued to perform poorly in school and they are often blamed for most of the state's high dropout rate.

The state has been under a federal court order since 2000 to increase spending for educating English-language learners. A federal judge ordered state lawmakers and Gov. Janet Napolitano to come up with a financial plan by early next week or face fines that could run into the millions.

While that debate brews at the state Capitol, 120 children in grades 3 through 6 in a dual-language program at Herrera School are reading books, writing essays and deciphering word problems in Spanish and English.

All tested proficient enough in English to participate as required by law. They receive half their instruction in English and half in Spanish.

Another 90 children in kindergarten, first and second grades, most of whom likely wouldn't qualify as proficient in English, also are being taught in both languages.

At Herrera and many other urban schools, many children begin kindergarten speaking only Spanish. At Herrera, almost all do.

This is the part of the program Pastor played with to comply with Proposition 203. She calls it "a structured English-immersion program with a foreign-language enhancement."

The children receive most of their instruction in English. But a longer than typical school day, from 8:15 a.m. to 3:05 p.m., allows for additional instruction in Spanish for enhancement.

Enhancement or enrichment programs in another language are allowed under the law, said Kathie Mooney of the state Department of Education. Last year, as part of an audit, state monitors found Herrera in compliance.

"As far as what we saw at the time, everything looked to be quite in order," Mooney said.

Students excelling

Pastor said the school closely follows guidelines for what is allowed under the state law.

By the start of third grade, the children are proficient in English and enter the regular dual-language program.

Pastor said the school is fortunate to get good results from the program: "Without the proof that the program is working, we wouldn't be able to continue."

Students in the program do as well as and, in some instances, better than other Herrera students on the state's standardized exam. At Herrera, 11th Street and Buckeye Road, 70 percent of all third-graders passed the reading portion of the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards.

Only Arizona, California and Massachusetts ban bilingual programs. James Crawford, director of the National Association of Bilingual Education, is impressed that Pastor and her teachers figured out how to continue teaching children in both languages.

He said the children will benefit.

Without instruction in their native language, Crawford said, children can only fall behind academically as they struggle to learn English: "You can't do much academic work if you don't understand the language of instruction."

English-speaking students who learn a second language routinely do better in school and get better jobs.

Research shows children in English-immersion programs do not learn English as fast as they did in bilingual programs, Crawford said. It can take three to 10 years to learn a new language, depending on the child.

Crawford hopes more Arizona schools will follow Pastor's lead.

Waiting list

The Herrera program started in 1999, just before the passage of Proposition 203, with one kindergarten class. Half of the children spoke English; the rest spoke mostly Spanish. Pastor was their teacher.

Today, there are two classes each of kindergarten and first grade and one each for grades 2 through 6. The program is popular and has a waiting list.

About 150 of Herrera's 770 students are from outside its attendance boundaries, attracted by both the dual-language program and the school's fine arts program.

Close to 5,500 people are in Phoenix for the bilingual-education conference. The association, based in Washington, D.C., includes more than 20,000 teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals, university professors and students, researchers, policymakers and parents.

At the conference, Jose Yañez, 12, a sixth-grader, said he prefers the dual-language program to English immersion.

A native Spanish speaker, he would sometimes stumble over his answers in English even though he was correct: "I felt like yelling it out in Spanish, but I wasn't allowed."

On the flip side, Mark Avila, 11, a fifth-grader, said he braved learning Spanish with encouragement from his teachers.

Classmate Raven Baeza, also 11, said her bilingual mother would speak to her in Spanish but she didn't know enough of the language to always understand what she was saying. Now she does.