Los Angeles Times
Monday, October 6, 1997
Parents Press Bilingual Effort at New School
Education: 'Language maintenance' program in Santa Ana builds
skills in Spanish while gradually introducing English to the mostly Latino
students. Families, faculty are united behind the curriculum.
By NANCY CLEELAND, Times Staff Writer
SANTA ANA--When parents in the primarily Spanish-speaking community
of French Court learned that their new neighborhood school was destined
to become English-only, they organized and offered a different approach.
Through their efforts, a hybrid curriculum
was born--one whose ambitious goal is to have students speaking and writing
fluently in both languages by the fifth grade.
"We didn't want our children to be left
behind in English, but at the same time, we didn't want them to forget
Spanish," said Margarita Castro, a single mother of four and a leader
of the parent group.
"Now we have a great hope, and faith,
that this next generation will be fluent in both languages."
In taking matters into their own hands, the
parents hit on a teaching method that some scholars say has been far more
successful than traditional bilingual education, which usually moves students
to all-English instruction between the third and fifth grades.
They also managed to avoid the polarized
political debate that has surrounded bilingual education in recent years.
It is too soon to know if their "language
maintenance" approach will work; Wallace Davis Elementary School opened
just this fall. But parents, teachers and Principal Lillian French are
enthusiastic and hopeful.
A key aspect, said several teachers, is that
the Davis school clearly values the language and culture of native Spanish
speakers and works to build a strong grammatical foundation in Spanish.
"I've been a teacher around 20 years,
and this is the first time I've had a chance to work in an environment
like this," said Julie Alexander, who teaches second grade. "It
was worth the wait."
Backers of the program say it is fitting
that it will be tried at the Davis school, named for an attorney who successfully
sued the Santa Ana Unified School District in the late 1960s for wrongly
moving Spanish-speaking students into classes for the mentally handicapped.
His lawsuit forced the district to provide testing and instruction in Spanish.
The single-story brick school at French and
14th streets, which once housed district offices, is in a densely settled
neighborhood of apartments and turn-of-the-century homes. It draws 720
students from a nine-block area. Many come from poor households and have
"Our students don't come with a lot
of advantages compared to other areas," French said. "But they
do have one advantage, and that is their language. Why not capitalize on
it? The way I see it, it's value added."
The "maintenance" language model
used at Davis differs from the more common "transitional" bilingual
teaching method from start to finish, French said.
To illustrate, she scribbled two graphs on
a piece of paper. A steep incline represented the transitional model, which
moves students from all-Spanish in kindergarten to all-English by fifth
grade. A more gradual incline represented the maintenance model.
Armed with similar charts, neighborhood parents
last year urged the Santa Ana Unified School District board to scrap plans
for an English-only school and try their modified approach. To their surprise,
the board agreed.
"In our plan, we have 30% English in
kindergarten, and by third grade it's 50-50," Castro said. "By
the fifth grade, it should be 80-20, because by then we're only reinforcing
the Spanish. Our hope is that by the end, the students will be able to
read and write and completely understand grammar in English and Spanish."
Castro, who was a teacher in Michoacan, Mexico,
before moving here with her four children two years ago, said she thought
of the lesson plan one morning after weeks of reading about educational
approaches. She and other parents presented it to the board the next evening.
As it turned out, her idea was not unique.
Similar approaches--introducing a second language while maintaining the
native language--have been successful at schools throughout Europe, Canada
and the United States, scholars said.
Many times, the classes mix students with
different language skills. For instance, half the students may be native
Spanish speakers and half native English speakers. Together they learn
to be bilingual and literate in both languages.
"That's the two-way program, and those
are the most efficient," said Magaly Lavadenz, a professor at Loyola
Marymount University and a leader in the California Assn. for Bilingual
"These programs have been around a really
long time, but they're still the least common form of bilingual education,"
Lavadenz said. "It involves a lot of work and planning, and you need
parental involvement. And it's taking a while for communities to figure
out that all children should be bilingual."
A 10-year study of language teaching methods
by Virginia Collier of George Mason University found that students in such
dual-language programs scored better on standardized tests than those in
more traditional bilingual programs as well as immersion programs in the
dominant language. Even students who speak the dominant language and learned
a second language through school scored higher on standardized tests, Collier
Such dual-language programs have recently
been started at several schools in Orange County, including at least two--Jefferson
Elementary and Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary--in the Santa Ana Unified
French said she hopes the Davis school eventually
will be able to offer dual-language instruction. For now, there are too
few English speakers in the school.
Encouraged by their success in changing the
school's curriculum, parents have remained highly involved, French said,
mentioning that a recent night meeting drew 200 parents. The school also
plans to start offering night classes in English for parents.
Ironically, Castro no longer is able to participate.
Before the school year, she and her children moved to Westminster, where
she manages an apartment building.
Her children attend a school with transitional
bilingual instruction, but Castro said she teaches them Spanish grammar
for an hour every evening.
"I want my sons to have that advantage,"
Castro said. "The fact is that those who lose their Spanish lose a