Bilingual Blues

This is not the way your grandfather learned English

Fifty percent of the students at Rivera's school are LEP, as are 65 percent of the students at the adjoining primary school. Spanish is the predominant language of the LEP students, followed by Vietnamese, Bosnian and Lao.

With so many different groups, bilingual education is not an option. The Alhambra School District, which Andalucia belongs to, has a policy of starting its students a year early in preschool, followed by all-day kindergarten, so that when the kids reach first grade, they've already had two years of English instruction.

Then, from first grade on, they are mainstreamed, but not left to sink or swim. Teachers are paid extra if they have an ESL endorsement, so there is always an ESL teacher leading the class or an ESL teacher that travels from class to class to help other teachers pattern their lessons in such a way as to reach the LEP students.

One morning in a fifth-grade class, for example, a math teacher and an ESL teacher team up to teach the concept of tenths and hundredths. But it's not done in any way that will single out the LEP students, although the ESL teacher constantly monitors their progress.

"What does cien mean in Spanish?" the ESL teacher asks. All of these students started to study Spanish as a foreign language in first grade, so this is not a question aimed only at Mexican kids.

There is nothing to tell the uninformed that ESL is spoken here.
Likewise, next door in a first-grade class, students are practicing spelling words, and the only hint that they are Spanish dominant is as subtle as saying "ay" for letter E and "ee" for letter I, as they are pronounced in Spanish.

The children's progress is evaluated every eight weeks, but English learning is ongoing.

It's an approach that the antibilingual factions and even the xenophobes might approve. But how could anyone tell when one student's three-year window ended?

One first-grader with thick glasses sits at a magnifying projector that allows her to read and follow along with class papers. Just as her pencil follows the words onscreen, it's clear that she is following the lesson.

In addition to her vision impairment, she is also what is known as a selective mute. She speaks Spanish at home, but she won't speak at all at school, a condition not uncommon in ESL classrooms. Only recently she has made a breakthrough by starting to whisper in class.

Jackie Doerr, the school principal, nudges a visitor's elbow.
"You see her mouth moving. It's so exciting," Doerr says.
Andalucia School bends over backward to reach families. It provides free breakfast for students, followed by a homework assistance program for those kids who don't have someone at home who can help them in English. It offers ESL class for the parents, coffee klatches for the moms, a pediatrician who comes to school once a week. The staff and administration scrounge for grant monies to pay for it all.

"Philosophy is great," Doerr says. "We got to do that in college. We could sit here and talk politics, but we still come here every day. We still face the kids every day, and we face mom and dad every day. This is reality.

"We're out to save every little kid."

Contact Michael Kiefer at his online address: mkiefer@newtimes.com

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