Wednesday, February 13, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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All kids part of this bilingual program

Times Snohomish County Bureau

A second-grade science lesson on balance and motion at West View Elementary in Burlington attracts lots of eager volunteers.

One student demonstrates the button-on-a-string that becomes a buzzing motion machine as the boy's hands pull the string in and out. Two girls stand on chairs to launch paper helicopters.

There's action and engagement, two hallmarks of good teaching. But there's something that, in some circles at least, is more controversial. The teacher, Miguel Rivas, conducts the entire class in Spanish.

West View Elementary, tucked between the strip malls and Interstate 5 in the Skagit Valley's retail center, is one of several schools in the region to try a dual-language immersion program where students learn in two languages at once.

The experiment, now four years old, has attracted some of the town's professionals — doctors, police officers and teachers — who enrolled their children knowing how important speaking Spanish has been to their own work. Burlington has seen its Hispanic population increase nearly threefold in the past decade, to nearly 30 percent. At West View, 70 percent of the students are now Hispanic.

Other school districts also have come calling. A group of Everett administrators visited in January, excited by the model, but they concluded it wouldn't work in an urban district where 53 different languages now are spoken. Instead, the district plans to revise its English Language Learners (ELL) program and give foreign-speaking students a more intensive start in English. It also hopes to give all of its teachers training that draws on the best bilingual practices around the country.

How schools teach English — and how quickly immigrant students assimilate — continues to be a hot-button issue. The federal government in 2005 required that ELL students be tested not only in speaking and listening — social skills children often pick up readily — but also in reading and writing.

The higher standards have spotlighted the length of time — sometimes as long as five years — bilingual students need to learn English well enough to keep up with their schoolwork. Meanwhile, taxpayers foot the bill. In states such as California and Texas, some legislators have called for an end to bilingual programs and for instruction only in English.

Locally, some school leaders in Monroe are questioning the length of time students spend in bilingual programs. Last year, just 36 out of 395 bilingual students, most of them Hispanic, exited the district's bilingual program.

"I'm concerned about the number of students learning English," said Debra Kolrud, a Monroe School Board member who has asked the district to look into the low success rate.

Kolrud quoted a friend who said her immigrant family never spoke its native language after coming to this county.

"We moved to America to be Americans. We need to learn the language," the friend said.

At the other end of the spectrum, some teachers in the dual-language program in Burlington say their model doesn't go far enough. Rivas, who came to West View Elementary from San Diego, said his two children started preschool in a Spanish-language immersion program, which was in turn modeled on decades-old French immersion programs in Canada.

In San Diego, Rivas said, both Spanish and English students started out with 100 percent instruction in Spanish, with English being added a little more each year.

By sixth grade, Rivas said, both groups of students were bilingual.

His wife, Emily, who grew up in San Diego speaking only English, is also an enthusiastic advocate of Spanish immersion programs but realizes such programs require a leap of faith.

"It's scary as a parent to be told, 'Your child will be taught to read and write in Spanish first.' But," she said, "they learn English. It happens for both sets of kids. English is all around them."

West View Elementary came to its dual-language program after years of failed attempts to raise the academic achievement of non-English speakers. Principal Meagan Dawson said fewer than half of seventh-graders were meeting reading and writing standards on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning four years ago. Teacher turnover was high. When she arrived two years ago, she was the third principal in three years.

Bilingualism is now part of the daily life of the school. The office staff is bilingual. The Martin Luther King Jr.-themed display case by the front entrance says not only "I have a dream" but "Yo tengo un sueño," the famous vision of equality in Spanish. At the MLK Day assembly, students celebrate the courage of Rosa Parks and of Cesar Chavez.

Science and social studies are taught in Spanish, math in English, and reading and writing in both.

"It takes two to three years [for Spanish-speaking students] to master English, and until they do, they can't learn the academic content," said Dawson. "That's why we teach the content in both languages."

When first-graders in a math lesson are asked to find patterns on a numbers chart, each student is paired with a "bilingual buddy." In this case, the English-speaking student helps the Spanish-speaking classmate. During science the roles of the buddies are reversed.

Teachers observe that both groups of students need the other to succeed.

In the widely used transitional model of bilingual education, students are removed from class for extra help in English and often fall behind in academics. Native English speakers, on the other hand, aren't introduced to a foreign language until middle or high school, when researchers say it's much harder to learn.

West View's principal said the usual result of this approach is that students of immigrant families lose their native languages and are cut off from their families and cultures, while American students rarely master a second language.

"As a nation, we prize being able to speak two languages, but for some reason we don't give students many opportunities when they're young," Dawson said.

Marsha Riddle Buly, an expert on bilingual education at Western Washington University whose daughter attends West View, said part of the power of the dual-language program is seeing the foreign language as a resource for other students, not a problem or "something to be gotten rid of."

She said spreading fluency in more than one language is not only a worthy goal for schools, but for a nation whose future depends on its ability to compete in a world economy.

"The world is multicultural," she said. "We need to be able to communicate with the world."

The Everett School District came to its current re-examination of bilingual programs for much the same reason as West View — a desire to see the children of immigrant families succeed in school.

Fewer than 30 percent of Everett seventh-grade students with limited English met state standards in reading and writing last year, and only 21 percent in math. More than 40 percent of the district's Hispanic students drop out of high school.

"Teachers want to know, 'What do I do? How do I support these kids?' " said Sue Dedrick, who directs Everett's ELL program.

Everett is looking to the Bellevue School District, which has developed an intensive program for new students, whatever grade level they enter school, so that their English comprehension — and classroom learning — will improve more quickly. And Everett hopes to add more bilingual teachers, rather than relying heavily on aides.

Everett teachers also are receiving training in Guided Language Acquisition Design (GLAD), a program that originated in California and combines what researchers say are some of the most effective strategies for teaching non-English speakers.

Last week, a demonstration classroom at Woodside Elementary in Bothell was cheerfully chaotic. Lupe Lastra-Short, a GLAD trainer from California, drew a large sea horse on a sheet of paper.

Twenty-five Everett teachers sat on folding chairs in the back and observed while another trainer, Ana Filipek, used a loud whisper to point out the strategies being used to boost the children's language and science skills.

The sea horse, Lastra-Short explained, has a head like a horse, a snout like a straw and fins like a hummingbird's wings. She labeled each body part and repeated the words, giving the children a picture to go with the structure. Then she tantalized them with an interesting fact.

"The female puts eggs in the male's pouch. About 200."

"What?!!" the kids asked.

"Why not?" she shrugged, tossing the question back at them. "Why do you think they lay that many eggs?" Then she asked the students to turn to each other and exchange theories about marine reproduction.

Despite the distractions, the students were rapt, their bodies practically quivering with excitement over what would happen next. Abby Davis, the teacher who allowed her classroom to be overrun for the week, noticed something else. A boy from Mexico quietly moved toward the labels on the charts, maps and drawings around the room for the right words to finish his written work.

Kristine Gooding, an ELL coach for the Everett schools, noted that GLAD draws on families' culture and experience, even if the parents don't speak English, to keep kids connected to school. The homework from the previous night asked the children to find out what type of seafood their family eats. The answers ranged from octopus to smoked salmon.

With a shortage of bilingual teachers in the country, and the persistent sentiment for teaching English to immigrants as quickly as possible, the GLAD strategies, with their combination of word support, visual cues and high-energy academics, may be more practical for school districts than total- or partial-language-immersion programs. It has the added selling point of engaging not just English-language learners but everyone in class.

"It combines the best strategies to teach English," said Wayne Kettler, Woodside's principal, "but it's also good, dynamic teaching. It works for all the kids."

Lynn Thompson: 425-745-7807 or

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company


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