Luz Todd is teaching a class full of 3- and 4-year-olds at Ewing Elementary School in Fresno, speaking only in Spanish. None of the transitional kindergarteners spoke the language when they enrolled at the school in August; now they are immersed in it entirely, except for 20 designated minutes of English instruction.
“If they say to me, ‘I need to go to the restroom,’ I say, ‘Oh, yo necessito el baño?’ and I point to the bathroom,” Todd said. “Everything is in Spanish from day one.”
Dual-immersion programs like the one that Todd teaches are hard to swallow for some skeptical parents, but the research is clear: The “two-way” programs, where bilingual teachers lead class in English 10 percent of the time and in another language 90 percent of the time, then slowly move that ratio to 50/50, are the most effective way to produce successful bilingual students.
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Thanks to Proposition 58, which California voters passed earlier this month, more of these programs are likely to pop up across the state. Proposition 58 gives school districts more flexibility to teach English learners, ending restrictions that used to require students be taught only in English, unless parents signed a waiver requesting otherwise.
16,000Students in Fresno Unified who are English learners
“Now that 58 has passed, it’s going to allow us to continue doing the work without having to worry about all the processes that were required before. Some of those things were just a lot of documentation,” said Maria Maldonado, Fresno Unified’s assistant superintendent for English learner services.
“In the past, we had to wait for parents to take the initiative. If they weren’t aware of the options for their children, they may not ask. Schools could not solicit or be fully informative or provide advice about what we know and what research indicates is a good process for our students.”
Before Proposition 227 was enacted in 1998 – the law that voters overturned with Proposition 58 – about 30 percent of California’s English learners were taught in bilingual programs. By 2008, only about 5 percent of the state’s English learners were taught in bilingual programs.
There are more than 16,000 students in the Fresno Unified School District who are English learners, making up nearly 25 percent of the student body. Only about 1,000 students, though, are enrolled in dual-immersion programs.
In addition to Ewing, Fresno Unified has dual-immersion programs at Leavenworth Elementary, Sunset Elementary and Yosemite Middle School. The district offers other types of bilingual programs at Hidalgo, Burroughs, Jackson and Lane elementary schools.
In May, the district announced it would invest an additional $2.5 million in English learner programs, vowing to expand bilingual education, hire more bilingual teachers and offer more programs for Hmong students. More than 80 percent of Fresno Unified’s English learners are Spanish speakers, while about 14 percent speak Hmong.
What we will see is a flexible idea about language – this idea that kids can speak in both and not be restricted by having to choose one or the other.
Fresno State Professor Laura Alamillo
Todd uses a lot of visuals to help her youngest students understand the language they’ve been immersed in. She holds up a picture of a boy “shushing” with his finger over this mouth, and says “silencio.” She uses emphasis and hand gestures. On Friday, she pointed back and forth to a boy and girl sitting on the floor playing with blocks. “Niño, niña, niño, niña,” she told them.
“For adults it’s a lot harder to learn another language because you don’t have it full time. You have other things to do. Here, they are immersed 100 percent,” Todd said. “When I came to this country, I was in my mid-20s, and I didn’t even know my ABCs in English. I immersed myself in soap operas and movie after movie. To learn, we have to be like we are as babies – listening to the sounds around us until we pick it up.”
Jorge Jimenez teaches a dual-immersion class for fourth-graders. He says by the time students get to him, they are fully bilingual and easily switch back and forth between languages. He has a set schedule that designates 60 percent of instruction in Spanish, and 40 percent in English.
“In the beginning, parents may fear that the children won’t learn well because of the language. On the contrary; once they start becoming fluent in the target language, their grades start improving and they become more aware of their surroundings because they are functioning practically in two worlds,” Jimenez said. “Students become more intelligent in all subjects once they’ve mastered two languages.”
Their grades start improving and they become more aware of their surroundings because they are functioning practically in two worlds.
FUSD dual immersion teacher Jorge Jimenez
Laura Alamillo, chair of Fresno State’s Department of Literacy, Early, Bilingual and Special Education, says there has been a natural pushback against bilingual classrooms for years – pointing out that more than 60 percent of voters passed Proposition 227, many of whom voiced concerns that bilingual programs were too risky, too expensive and often poorly executed.
“I wonder why anyone would be against it,” Alamillo said. “Is it a social-political fear of multilingualism? Is it because it’s Spanish and we are in close proximity to the border?”
Alamillo says she doesn’t think Proposition 58’s passage means every school will implement a dual-immersion program, but that parents simply will have more options for their children, and more teachers will want to become certified to use their language skills to teach.
“What we will see is a flexible idea about language – this idea that kids can speak in both and not be restricted by having to choose one or the other,” she said. “It’s just providing an openness to talk freely about these options and gives parents more of a choice. What will happen is just an overall feeling that schools will be more free to inform parents about multilingualism and its benefits.”
Alma Renteria, a dual immersion instructor at Fresno Unified, says the new law could help clear up misconceptions about the programs that have been around for years.
“I think that, more than anything, people must understand that we don’t have anything against our students learning English. It’s the opposite,” she said. “We want our students to master that language and more. The more languages, the more opportunities they’ll have.”