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 moved frequently.
     "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 Education.
     "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 found.
     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 School District.
     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 jewel."