LONGMONT — Lori Madina sits with four children, reading a book about the weather in Spanish. When the children are finished reading and discussing the concepts in the book, they read it again in English, making connections between words that are similar in both languages, such as the word “vapor.”
Madina is a bilingual second-grade teacher at Indian Peaks Elementary School in Longmont. Her homeroom is a mix of English and Spanish speakers, but for a good chunk of the day all second-graders who speak Spanish come to her classroom to learn in both languages.
Her English speakers go to other classrooms, where they learn in English.
The two groups come back together for math, music, art, physical education, recess and lunch to develop mutual respect for each other’s cultures, Madina said.
“We are trying to prepare them to be respectful citizens,” she said. “We teach them how to deal with diversity. ... If anything, their education is more enriching because they are learning the fundamentals and learning about culture and respect, things like how to treat one another.”
Madina is participating in a University of Colorado research study this year called Transitions to Biliteracy or Literacy Squared, which teaches bilingual teachers the best ways to teach English to Spanish speakers.
“It has been helpful to understand the essential components of teaching bilingual ... each minute has to be accounted for,” Madina said. “I’m learning how precise the curriculum has to be. A lot of teachers are not prepared for that work, but when you see the kids making connections, it is amazing.”
Nine of the St. Vrain Valley School District’s 22 elementary schools provide bilingual education, said Mary Sires, the district’s executive director for student services.
This year, those schools are teaching 1,188 bilingual students.
As Longmont’s Hispanic population continues to grow, so does the number of students who need to learn in both Spanish and English.
St. Vrain’s bilingual program is based on a late-exit model, meaning students have until fifth grade to continue learning in their native language.
Most schools begin transitioning kids out of Spanish as early as fourth grade, Madina said, because students who have participated in bilingual education since kindergarten learn to speak and read the language proficiently by fourth grade.
Students who have “been in school the whole time are only one to two levels below (the English-speaking children),” said fourth-grade bilingual teacher Wendy Sparrow. “Kids who have gone through the program make the transition (to English) quite well.”
Students who enter the bilingual program in higher grades have more of a problem making the transition to English, Sparrow said.
Elementary school bilingual teachers try to get all their Spanish-speaking students proficient in English before they move on to middle school because “there is no support in sixth grade,” Sparrow said.
She and the fifth-grade bilingual teacher at Indian Peaks trade kids during the day, based on their level of English proficiency. Fourth-graders who are completely proficient on the Colorado Student Assessment Program tests go to the fifth-grade teacher and those fifth-graders who need a little more support in Spanish come to Sparrow’s class.
“If students are really behind in their native language, it takes them longer in English. Sometimes it is a difficult combination of home life and level of education,” she said.
Both Sparrow and Madina feel the bilingual program works well for students who are able to enter it in their early years.
In kindergarten, for instance, Spanish speakers never see English words, but teachers speak some English to them.
In first grade, students receive most of their instruction in Spanish, with one hour of English.
In second grade, students receive 11/2 hours of English.
In the long run, Sires said, teaching children how to read and write in their native language before asking them to make the transition to English, improves their performance in both languages.
One unexpected outcome of mingling Spanish- and English-speaking students in a homeroom is that the students help each other and the English speakers are intrigued by the Spanish language and beg their friends to teach them more words.
Sires has spoken with elementary school principals about offering Spanish classes for English speakers.
“It is something we are trying to figure out how to do,” Sires said.
Schools, however, would have to pull it off with existing resources.
Most bilingual teachers in the district agree that a dual language program would be “the Mercedes Benz” of bilingual education. Students in a dual language program learn each other’s language, Sires said.
However, that program is expensive, so the district had to settle for the “Cadillac” of bilingual programs, she said.
The bilingual school concept has frightened many parents away from Indian Peaks and other schools in the district, said principal Julie McVicker.
Indian Peaks was built to hold more than 500 students, but its enrollment was 310 students this year and is expected to drop to 280 next year with the opening of Flagstaff Academy charter school down the street.
“One great thing is the district supports the programming here, English and Spanish. We get additional resources which help all kids,” McVicker said.
Indian Peaks has five literacy teachers who give students who need help 30 to 40 minutes of additional instruction per day. All students, from gifted and talented ones to those with learning challenges, get the same amount of attention and help, she said.
The class sizes at Indian Peaks are smaller because the school receives federal funds to reduce the student/teacher ratio. The school also offers full-day kindergarten and before- and after-school day care.
Many parents choose a public school based solely on its test scores, McVicker said, or they hear negative things from their neighbors. And that is a shame, she said, because “they are choosing other schools without ever visiting us.”
What brings the school’s CSAP scores down is the high level of students who have never taken a test before in English. The third-grade Spanish language CSAPs show that those children are learning and growing in their native language. Some just haven’t made the leap to English by fourth grade, McVicker said.
Detractors’ “judgment of our school is clouded if that’s all they are looking at,” she said. “In bilingual schools, we have some of the strongest teachers. They have to be very skilled to teach in a school like this.”
Indian Peaks is placing a stronger focus on science to get its students “hooked into the content,” McVicker said. “They are interested in that so we use it for language acquisition.”
The Literacy Squared program, which will run through the 2007-08 school year, is helping teachers get their Spanish-speaking students nearly up to grade level in English reading by teaching them to read at grade level in Spanish and then following up with English texts that are one grade level below where they are in Spanish.
Teachers participating in the program spend their weekends learning best practices in literacy instruction.
Madina’s goal is to get her Spanish-speaking students at grade level by the time they reach third grade.
“I can see progress at the first- and second-grade levels,” Madina said.
Older students who studied with her in second grade “rarely speak Spanish with me,” she said. “Especially with this transition to biliteracy. It is amazing.”
Teachers in the school meet daily to offer feedback to each other about what worked and what didn’t.
“That is huge for teachers. They need that support system,” she said.
Madina believes that every teacher in the school district should be exposed to professional development in English as a second language. By not offering that, “we’re doing our students a disservice,” she said.
Madina admitted she gets exhausted and occasionally burned out, but her students “make it all worthwhile. They appreciate everything you do for them.”
She added that she tells her students every day how important it is for them to be bilingual.
“Being bilingual is worth two people,” she said. “It’s a positive, not a negative.”
St. Vrain elementary schools offering bilingual programs:
• Central Elementary
• Columbine Elementary
• Frederick Elementary
• Indian Peaks Elementary
• Loma Linda Elementary
• Northridge Elementary
• Prairie Ridge Elementary
• Rocky Mountain Elementary
• Spangler Elementary
Paula Aven Gladych can be reached at 303-684-5211, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.