Basalt’s bilingual program tackles cultural challenges
Five Anglo students sit in a semicircle around Basalt Elementary School teacher Betsy Friesen reading a story aloud in Spanish about a dragon who gets heartburn after eating spicy sausages.
A classroom visitor interrupts and asks the kids if they like studying Spanish. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” is the enthusiastic reply.
“Why?” asks the visitor.
Sometimes it helps you talk to your friends, replies Colter, a fourth-grader.
His answer speaks volumes. To him and many of his classmates, the differences between brown skin and white skin, English speakers and Spanish speakers aren’t all that important. They’re kids. They’re classmates. They’re friends.
Basalt Elementary School has been trying for eight years to integrate a growing population of Latino students through a special bilingual program.
The percentage of Latino students hit an all-time high this year. There are 532 total students in the school. Data shows 232 of them, or 44 percent, are Latino.
Principal Suzanne Wheeler-Del Piccolo said the percentage of Latinos has grown from 25 percent just five years ago.
“The challenges are obvious,” she said. “Most of these kids don’t speak English, or it is limited when they arrive.”
The pressure is immense to make sure the school successfully teaches English to Latinos. State funding is tied, in part, to test results. Students must be proficient in English by third and fourth grade, even if they moved here from another country.
@ATD Sub heds:Only bilingual program
@ATD body copy: Basalt Elementary believes it has the tools to meet the challenge through bilingual education.
In that program, Anglo and Latino students spend a good share of their day together in a homeroom, studying in both Spanish and English, alternating the language they use by day.
The kids also split up for portions of each day to study intensively in both Spanish and in English. Native English-speaking students hammer away at reading and writing lessons just as Anglos in other classes. Then they study intensively in Spanish to hone their second language.
Native Spanish-speaking students receive intensive studies in English so they can adapt to a new language.
They also study Spanish because it helps their transition to English, said Kenny Teitler, a Spanish reading teacher who helps coordinate the bilingual program. Spanish lessons also help the young Latinos stay connected to their heritage.
“That’s one of the things parents have told us that they love about the bilingual programs – it maintains their culture,” Teitler said.
There are four classes in Kindergarten through second grade where Anglo and Latino students are mixed. One class is Latino only.
In third and fourth grades, there are two mixed classrooms and one that is Latino only.
The goal is to keep all classrooms mixed at a 50-50 ratio. That’s not always possible due to lower participation by Anglos. Parents also have the option of putting their children in the Literacy First or Explorations in Excellence programs at the school.
About 144 of the 532 students, or 27 percent, in Basalt Elementary School participate in the bilingual education program. It is extremely popular with parents of Latinos. Its support varies by grade with parents of Anglos.
“We’re the only bilingual program in the school district,” said Wheeler-Del Piccolo.
Similar programs were eliminated in Carbondale and Glenwood Springs. It survived in Basalt because it has been in place so long and it shows positive results.
@ATD Sub heds:Great opportunity
@ATD body copy: Tracy Bennett, a town councilwoman and shop owner in Basalt, said she has been overjoyed with her daughter’s participation in the bilingual program. Taylor Bennett has been in bilingual education since kindergarten and is now in Betsy Friesen’s fourth-grade class.
“She’s had fabulous teachers all the way through,” said Tracy. “She loves school. She’s never said ‘I don’t want to be in bilingual.'”
Bennett said she believes it helps her daughter’s education to be mixed with Latinos at school and learn about their heritage as well as their native language. She said cultural diversity is otherwise lacking in the Roaring Fork Valley.
She also believes the exposure will help chip away at barriers that exist today between older Latinos and Anglos. “These little guys are the ambassadors for the future,” Bennett said.
She never had concerns that Taylor’s overall education would suffer from being in the bilingual program. And Taylor’s performance over the five years backs her mom’s instincts.
“They’re little sponges at this age,” Tracy said. “I felt in my heart that she would pick it up.”
Wheeler-Del Piccolo said there are constant assessments to gauge the progress of both Anglos and Latinos in the bilingual program. Students test as well in English skills as those in other programs.
Teitler said he believes that Latino children who go through bilingual education receive a better foundation that pays dividends later in school.
Wheeler-Del Piccolo said there is no evidence that Basalt Elementary School’s quality of education level suffers due to the influx of Latinos. “It’s a myth,” she said.
For example, 77 percent of all children in third grade tested proficient or advanced in reading skills.
However, when the scores of native English speakers are broken out, 91 percent were proficient or advanced.
“That’s a wonderful indication that our children are doing well in our school,” Wheeler-Del Piccolo said.
Native Spanish speakers can take the state standardized tests in Spanish through third grade. They must take the test in English in fourth grade, if they started their U.S. education by first grade.
@ATD Sub heds:Battling perceptions
@ATD body copy: Despite some favorable anecdotal evidence and test scores, the Basalt public schools still face a perception problem with at least a segment of the midvalley population.
Bennett, who is involved in numerous civic endeavors, said she never hears concerns about the quality of education from parents with kids in Basalt’s public schools. But she knows rumors cause some parents to send their kids elsewhere.
There is evidence that suggests “white flight” is affecting the school. That occurs when parents whose children used to attend decide to enroll their kids elsewhere.
Data shows a steady Latino population over the past two years. There were 231 Latinos last year and 232 this year.
But the percentage of Latinos increased from 40 to 44 percent due to the drop in the number of Anglos. Records show there are 294 Anglo students in the elementary school this year compared to 336 last year. That is a decrease of 42 students, or 12.5 percent.
Some of the drop is due to changes in class sizes. But that cannot explain it all.
“I think Basalt gets a bad rap,” Bennett said. “I think too many people are letting other people who don’t really know do their thinking.”
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