No Habla Español?

Although targeted to native-Spanish speakers, two-way immersion classes are in high demand among English-speaking students in Berkeley.

Berkeley parents are lined up around the block to get their kids into two-way Spanish and English immersion classes. The waitlist is overflowing, but the number of kindergarten classes open to parents who want their kids to be educated in both languages is likely to be reduced for a second-straight year. The school district has no shortage of English-speaking parents seeking a rich, culturally diverse education for their children; the problem is finding enough native Spanish-speaking students to make the program completely functional. “This program has always had a waitlist on the English-speaking side,” said Mary Patterson, a two-way immersion teacher at Longfellow Middle School. “The model isn’t supposed to be seventeen English-speaking kids and three Spanish-speaking kids. Ideally, it should be half and half because they’re models for each other.”

Demand for two-way education among Spanish-speaking parents has always been lower, but no one has a clear-cut explanation for this recent drop in enrollment numbers. It might just be a statistical anomaly, but even so, proponents say every avenue should be explored to expand the program because of its proven-track record of narrowing the achievement gap between white students and their Latino counterparts. A large chunk of the problem, they say, is that many native Spanish-speakers simply aren’t aware of the program and its long-term benefits. “It seems counterintuitive,” said Patterson. “You want your kids to learn English, so wouldn’t you put them in English classes?”

But two-way immersion was specifically designed to give Spanish-speaking students a smooth transition into the English-language school system, not to enhance the foreign language skills of English speakers. Ideally, 80 to 90 percent of instructions are taught in Spanish in elementary school; English is slowly integrated into the curriculum until the ratio hits the 50-50 plateau in middle school. Two years ago, the Berkeley Unified School District had five two-way kindergarten classes open to newcomers at Cragmont, Le Conte, and Rosa Parks elementary schools. This year, there were only four new classes, and the district currently projects that there will only be three next year due to the decline in enrollment of native-Spanish speaking students. After grade school, students can continue their dual-language education at Longfellow before being integrated into regular classes in high school.

A national study entitled “The Astounding Effectiveness of Dual Language Education for All” conducted in 23 school districts, in 15 states, concluded that native-Spanish speakers enrolled in two-way immersion perform at the same level or better on standardized tests than their counterparts in English-only classes by fifth grade. A 2009 Berkeley Unified School District analysis of its own two-way immersion program produced similar findings. Test scores often lag in early grades when students are still grappling with English; once they catch on, those scores rise dramatically. “You really start seeing the benefits in middle school,” said Patterson. “That’s when it clicks.”

The district also found in a separate 2010 study that almost 50 percent of native Spanish-speaking students who are re-classified as fluent English-proficient speakers come out of the two-way and bilingual immersion programs even though they account for only 10 percent of the total pie. And, last year, 20 of 21 students in Patterson’s first-ever two-way class at Longfellow graduated from high school.

One reason the program is so effective is that it takes an additive approach to bilingualism — students are learning in their native language and literally adding another language over time. The opposite is true of English-only education, where the Spanish-language skills of Latino students tend to deteriorate as they’re integrated into the school system. “You’re adding more languages to their repertoire instead of taking them away,” said Jabari Anderson, a second-grade two-way immersion teacher at Cragmont Elementary school.

But students in two-way immersion aren’t just adding another language, they’re learning about their own cultural history in the process. For instance, this week Patterson’s sixth-grade students will begin reading a Spanish biography, Cajas de Carton, which chronicles Dr. Francisco Jiménez‘s journey from migrant farm-worker to university professor. Later, they’ll take a field trip to Santa Clara, where Jiménez teaches, to meet him personally. Luis Flores, a member of the district’s first two-way immersion class, said this kind of instruction helped him develop self-esteem and form a cultural identity that he values. “We always talked about college and what we wanted to do after high school,” he said. “The teachers really helped us in realizing our dreams.” And while students in regular classes often self-segregate by race, Flores said he benefitted not only linguistically, but culturally and emotionally from the tight-knit community he formed with his native-English speaking classmates. “It helped us build a strong community,” he said. “We understood each other and where we came from.”

The program also gives parents like Paola Bermúdez, who doesn’t speak English, a chance to play a more significant role in the education of her four children. Oftentimes, Spanish-speaking parents are divorced from the educational process once their kids enter regular kindergarten classes, but two-way immersion allows Bermúdez to help her kids with their homework or check up on things when she has concerns. “I can talk to teachers directly,” she told the Express through a translator. “I don’t have to rely on someone else.”

While enrollment numbers of native-Spanish speakers have dropped, the program has seen an increase in bilingual students, many of whose parents are desperate to preserve their family’s Spanish-language heritage. Historically, US immigrants drop their native languages by the second and third generations. Two-way immersion offsets that trend. “I lost a lot of my Spanish growing up, so we knew what could happen if we went to English-only classes,” said Vylma Ortiz, a first-generation Puerto Rican immigrant, whose child is a third grader at Cragmont Elementary.

But the program needs at least 30 percent of its students to be native-Spanish speakers to function properly, which is why a group of parents formed Amigos De Immersion to spread the word. Ty Alper, one of the group’s coordinators, thinks more native-Spanish-speaking parents would jump onboard, but they’re afraid their language is a crutch that will hamper their children’s long-term ability to learn English. Even Bermúdez said she initially feared that her children would be stigmatized: “But we decided to do it anyway,” she said.

That’s why Alper, who has a third-grade daughter in the program at Rosa Parks, says parents and the district need to make a concerted effort to raise awareness about the program’s effectiveness in the Latino community. “When we talk to people in the community, they don’t know what it is. They’ve never heard of it,” he said. So far, they’ve held a pair of public forums in Spanish and they’re planning to make presentations at Berkeley preschools and Head Start centers for low-income children. Patterson said outreach and recruitment is necessary because no one knows exactly what the problem is: Are Spanish-speaking parents unaware of the program, or simply disinterested? “If it’s only the English speakers who want it, it’s not dual immersion and we shouldn’t have it.”

But Bermúdez will testify on the program’s behalf. Although she had her initial fears, she wants her children to have a better life than she and her husband have had working as a nanny and a gardener. She thinks this program will get them there: “I would tell parents that their kids are going to have so many more opportunities if they’re bilingual,” she said.


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