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Northside schools pushing bilingual learning

Dual-language programs are more popular than ever

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The number of dual-language and language-immersion classes in San Antonio-area schools has exploded in the last decade, with no signs of slowing down.

In more than 110 schools across the region, the programs are thriving as demand increases. Parents and educational professionals said the growth and popularity derive from a desire to learn another tongue, create relationships across cultures and expand a child’s cognitive abilities.

“It is really neat to see these programs spreading across the U.S.,” said Luz Ramirez, administrator for the bilingual and English-as-a-second-language program at Judson Independent School District. “I feel in the U.S. we have not valued acquiring another language as they do in other countries, but that’s changing.”

Officials said local institutions would offer twice as many prekindergarten through fifth grade dual-language initiatives starting this fall, compared to only a smattering 10 years ago. Today, there are more than 100 elementary schools where students can opt for Spanish immersion or bilingual learning.

In addition, dual-language classes are spreading to a handful of middle and high schools.

Dual-language immersion programs vary by district. In this instruction — also referred to as two-way immersion — pupils speaking English as their native tongue are in the same classroom with students for whom English is a second language.

Starting either in kindergarten or first grade, schoolchildren begin with 90/10 instruction, meaning 90 percent of class is taught in Spanish and 10 percent in English. As their grade level increases, so does the amount of English communication, to where fifth-graders receive an equal split. The goal for both groups is biliteracy: reading, writing and speaking two languages.

PROGRAMS VARY

Alamo Heights Independent School District’s Spanish-immersion program differs from many others locally. It was created to teach English-speaking students Spanish. The curriculum extends from first through fifth grade, and is available for selected learners at Cambridge and Woodridge elementary schools. Students can continue the study at the district’s junior and high school.

Dana Bashara, AHISD superintendent, said when parents enroll their child in the first-grade program, they stress the importance of a “five-year commitment.”

“That is because we know it takes five years — grades one through five — to attain the language, keep retention of Spanish, and to have the benefits of bilingualism,” Bashara said.

When AHISD’s students become sixth-graders, the dual-language learners merge with those in the ESL system, Bashara said.

The AHISD model, created in the fall of 1998, was one of the first of its kind for the development and implementation of a Spanish-immersion curriculum in Texas public schools. Since then, interest and participation have always remained strong, the superintendent said.

“Some years, we have a wait list, some years we don’t. It depends on several factors, such as how many seats are available in a class, how much demand we have in a particular year,” Bashara said.

Educators note dual-language learners experience higher levels of academic achievement and have improved attention and greater cognitive flexibility.

“The value of acquiring a second language is a good thing, and it also helps develop cognitive abilities by increasing (students’) ability to grow as problem-solvers,” said Victor Raga, Northside Independent School District’s director of bilingual and ESL education.

Like Northside, the Spanish-immersion initiative has become very popular in the North East Independent School District. Classes are offered at 16 elementary schools and five middle schools.

“We have wait lists at one or two campuses just about every year,” said NEISD spokeswoman Aubrey Chancellor.

In 2017-18, MacArthur High School became the first high school in NEISD to offer the program. Its inaugural class consisted of 50 students coming from both Eisenhower and Garner middle schools.

One of the pupils, sophomore Julian Herrera, has been in the dual-language curriculum since attending El Dorado Elementary School.

“There’s actually a group of seven of us that have been in the program together since kindergarten,” Herrera said in a prepared release. “It’s great having that group of friends to go through this with.”

When it was time to enroll Herrera in school, his parents researched the program because they wanted their son to have an academic advantage.

“My wife got as much information as she could in the beginning,” said Roberto Herrera in a release. “We thought it would be beneficial. A second language is always good. By the time he’s in the workforce, he will have to know both.”

Other local parents said they wanted their kids in dual-language classes for the mental stimulus, as well as the cultural benefits.

Krisana Puccio, the administrator for the Pineapple School, 12222 Huebner Road, said, “Parents are often shocked to see the bilingualism flourish in their little ones, especially in cases where the children start to speak at a higher level of Spanish than their parents.”

The Pineapple School, opened in 2010, is a private institution offering a Spanish-immersion program surrounding children with Latin-American language and culture. In 2015, a second campus in Stone Oak was launched.

“The students, once they are old enough to understand the concept of bilingualism, are very proud that they can speak two languages,” Puccio said.

At NISD, dual-language classes are currently available at six elementary schools from grades kindergarten through fifth; this fall, the district will introduce the program at four more kindergartens. Northside also offers the model at Stinson and Ross middle schools.

“For dual language, the goal is to strategically look at areas of our district where demand and growth is occurring,” Raga said. “The growth in (NISD) is along Culebra (Road), Potranco (Road) and (Loop) 1604 areas.”

Raga added a waiting list is common, but expanding the program in the future is planned.

Boerne Independent School District’s dual language program employs an immersion/two-way biliteracy model at Curington, Fabra and Kendall elementary schools. The BISD dual-language program extends into middle school classes as well.

The goal is to integrate equal numbers of native Spanish-speaking children with native English-speaking children.

Meanwhile, Ramirez said JISD’s program “has been successful because parents are our best recruiters.”

“At Judson ISD, the dual-language program started around 10-11 years ago,” Ramirez said. “It took about five years of planning to get it started, but it was our community who insisted, who wanted it.”

Unlike elsewhere, Judson ISD chose a 50/50 dual-language model for Coronado Village, Hopkins and Hartman elementary schools. Ramirez said the district also began offering dual-language immersion classes at Judson Middle School last year.

“I believe if you have happy parents, you have a happy community, and we always keep the child in mind,” Ramirez said.

MORE TEACHERS NEEDED

One thing affecting school districts statewide is a widening shortage of dual-language teachers. According to the Texas Education Agency, there were almost 1 million bilingual students being taught by a little more than 21,000 dual-language instructors during the 2016-17 school year.

As the number of learners in need of bilingual instruction escalates, school districts battle for first dibs on hiring dual-language teachers.

NEISD’s Chancellor said, “There are not enough qualified bilingual teachers.”

Raga noted Northside ISD recently hired 20 such educators.

“It is always a challenge to find qualified teachers, but at the end of the day we do have highly qualified teachers in our classrooms,” Raga said.

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