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Two languages prove better than one

Amanda Holt MillerGlenwood Springs correspondent
From left, Wilfredo Salamana, 9, Jean Paul Cote, 9, Edwin Membreno, 9, and Gordon Murphy, 9, listen recently as teacher Betsy McMichael reads a book in a dual-language fourth-grade class at Basalt Elementary School. Post Independent photo/Kara K. Pearson.
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Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories this week looking at Latinos and their lives in the valley and beyond.Speaking English doesn’t come easy for Yasmeen Torres, an energetic fourth-grader at Basalt Elementary School. She’s been learning to speak and read the language since she was in kindergarten.At home with her parents and younger siblings, Yasmeen speaks Spanish almost exclusively. At school, she speaks English for half of the day and Spanish during the other half. That’s how the dual-language program at Basalt works.Students have a reading class in their first language, another in their second and half of their math, science and social studies lessons in English and the other half in Spanish.”We have story time. I read a book to the kids,” said Betsy McMichael, Yasmeen’s teacher. “We do it all in Spanish if the book is in Spanish, and I go over vocabulary words just like we do with English books.”The goal of the dual-language programs at Basalt Elementary and Edwards Elementary schools, the only schools in the area to offer such programs, is to graduate students who are not only bilingual but also biliterate. “I read Spanish books,” Yasmeen said in unhalting, almost unaccented English. “But I only read them when my mom makes me. I like English books.”One criticism of education for Latino students is there is so much emphasis on learning English they never learn to read Spanish.

“There’s a real value in being able to read and write in both languages,” McMichael said. “It’s a skill that will help them in the career world later.”Although Yasmeen doesn’t like reading in Spanish much, she’s happy to be in the dual-language program.”When my mom wanted to put me in dual-language, my aunt yelled at her,” Yasmeen said. “She said I wouldn’t learn English. But Mrs. McMichael said learning one language [Spanish] makes it easier to learn English.”But she said there are some differences between English and Spanish.”In Spanish, we put the adjective after the noun – the table round. In English it’s the round table. Suffixes are different too,” she said. Some kids in Yasmeen’s class are new to both the program and the country.McMichael said she pairs bilingual students with newer kids who need help deciphering what’s happening during the math, science or history lessons.”The time is very separate. I try to teach lessons entirely in one language without translating,” McMichael said. “We try to get everyone up to speed, and we don’t wait. Some of the kids are pretty new. Those kids have a buddy to help them out.” Program roots”There’s a big second-language boom right now,” said Kenny Teitler, the teacher who created the dual-language program at Basalt Elementary School. “A lot of second-language learners are coming to school. We had to figure out – how do we supply them with academic knowledge while they’re acquiring a second language?”Teitler proposed dual-language education to his principal. The school was then and still is about half Latino and half Anglo. Teitler learned about dual-language as a college student and thought it might work. The idea took, and the school has offered the program since 1994.”It was probably easier to do it then than it is now. We looked at examples of schools that were doing dual-language programs and the success they were having,” Teitler said.

The program started with just two bilingual teachers and two who spoke some Spanish. Teitler said during the first year teachers depended heavily on bilingual classroom aides.”One of the big roadblocks for a program like this is finding qualified teachers,” Teitler said. “We’ve been adding teachers a few at a time.”In the beginning, the program drew from resources within the district. Now teachers from all over the country are attracted to the school because of its program, Teitler said.Nine of Basalt’s 28 classes use the dual-language format. The school has seven bilingual teachers and two who are conversational.The program at Edwards, in Eagle County School District, is newer. It was established three years ago when the Latino population topped 70 percent.”We were experiencing ‘white flight,'” Emily Larsen, a teacher at Edwards Elementary School, said. “Anglo parents were taking their kids out of the school, and we needed to find some way to keep them from leaving.”It worked. Larsen said the school is filling up, and people from all over Eagle County want to bring their kids to Edwards.When the program started, the school already had a bilingual program in place for Latino kids. So they had a lot of the supplies and tools they needed to get started, including teachers who spoke Spanish. A federal grant of $1.1 million over five years helped the school make a smooth transition to dual-language education. Now two-thirds of the students at Edwards participate in the program.”The reason this program happened here is parents,” Larsen said. “It was a grassroots effort on their part. We did a series of community meetings the year before to see what kind of interest there was. There was a lot.” SuccessIn the programs at both Edwards and Basalt, kids have a language arts or literacy block in their first language, another in their second language and a block of regular classes like math, science and history, which are taught in English half the time and in Spanish the other half.”Our goal is that [the kids] will leave here bilingual and biliterate,” Larsen said.

The program is having tremendous success, she said.”This year’s fifth-graders are really incredible,” Larsen said. “The English-speaking kids only started learning Spanish in second grade. Most of them are still limited, but they’re at the high end of limited.”Teitler tracked the success of kids who went through Basalt’s dual-language program.CSAP scores showed current sixth- through 11th-grade Latinos who were part of the dual-language program scored 13 percent more proficient and advanced than Latinos overall in the Roaring Fork School District. Anglos in the dual-language program scored 18 percent more proficient or advanced.”The kids learn in both languages,” Larsen said. “That probably makes ours one of the most rigorous academic programs around.”‘Dropping off a cliff’Next year, the Eagle County School District will be one of only three in the state to offer dual-language education at the middle-school level.”Berry Creek Middle School will be the first one with a program in the mountains,” Larsen said. “We’re really lucky to be able to continue it. It would be kind of like dropping the kids off a cliff to drop it.”There is no continuation for Basalt kids.”There is some language at the middle school,” McMichael said. “But they already know too much for the beginning Spanish classes there.”Yasmeen said she will keep reading Spanish books, even though they’re not her favorite.”I will keep reading Spanish,” Yasmeen said. “My mom will make me. It’s good to do it.”


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