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Dual language program a success

Roberto Morales, a seventh-grader in the dual language program at Truman Middle School, listens to a discussion about love in Mexican folk tales. In the foreground is language arts teacher Arielle Street.  (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Roberto Morales, a seventh-grader in the dual language program at Truman Middle School, listens to a discussion about love in Mexican folk tales. In the foreground is language arts teacher Arielle Street. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

Irvin Aranda, 13, has some definite ideas about the benefits of being bilingual and biliterate.

“In the future when I get a job, they’ll pay me more because I can talk in two languages,” Aranda said recently. He just finished seventh grade at Truman Middle School and is one of about 360 students in Truman’s dual language program.

Students in the program get half of their day’s instruction in English and the other half in Spanish. Specifically, they learn social studies and science in Spanish and learn math and language arts in English.

Researchers have found that students who learn in two languages outperform their peers who learn in just one language because it stimulates their brains and helps them make connections between concepts. It also helps students who are learning English close the achievement gap with their peers.

Barbara Sena, left, helps Truman Middle School sixth-grader Erik Reyes in a social studies class. The class is taught in Spanish as part of Truman’s dual language program. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Barbara Sena, left, helps Truman Middle School sixth-grader Erik Reyes in a social studies class. The class is taught in Spanish as part of Truman’s dual language program. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Truman has one of the most well-established dual language programs in the state, having offered some form of dual language since 1999. When Principal Judy Martin-Tafoya came to Truman 10 years ago, she decided to place more emphasis on the program and build it up.

Now, the program has a waiting list every year and it has been highlighted locally as a “bright spot,” or an effective program to which other schools can look for guidance.

David Rogers, executive director of Dual Language Education of New Mexico, said Truman is one of the best dual language programs in the state and is particularly noteworthy because it is a middle school.

“There are very few middle school programs, never mind high school,” Rogers said. “Most of the dual language programs being offered begin and end in elementary school.”

He did note, however, that Albuquerque High School has a strong program. Rogers said there were about 115 schools across New Mexico with approved dual language programs this year, but they varied significantly in quality.

In a good dual language program, Rogers said, at least two core classes are taught in the non-English program language. There should also be clear boundaries between different languages; a class taught in Spanish should be exclusively Spanish, without students and teachers translating between languages during the same lesson.

Truman is also noteworthy for its results. Students in the program have higher test scores than the Truman student body as a whole. The difference is most pronounced in seventh-grade math scores: 43 percent of dual language students scored proficient or above on the math section of the state standardized test in 2012, compared to 28 percent of the general Truman population of about 1,400 students. That is the largest difference in test scores, but the dual language students outscored their peers by 5 or 6 percentage points in nearly every grade level and subject.

Gilberto Lobo, who teaches science at Truman, has his own evidence that the program is successful. Lobo, who teaches science in Spanish to the dual language students, attended a ceremony at Atrisco Heritage Academy to recognize the top 10 graduating seniors. Among those, he said, six were from the Truman dual language program, even though several middle schools feed into Atrisco Heritage.

This is no surprise to researchers who study dual language. Virginia Collier and Wayne Thomas, formerly of George Mason University, now specialize in research on dual language education. They recently gave a presentation to the Albuquerque Public Schools board, highlighting the significant effects the programs can have on student achievement.

“By the end of elementary school, the difference is as much as a full year,” Thomas said. “The fifth-graders in dual language are scoring as high as the sixth-graders not in dual language. We’re not talking about small effects here. These are very large effect sizes.”

Thomas said he is excited about the way dual language programs can drive up test scores for all students.

“I’ve been in education now for 40 years,” Thomas said. “I’ve been looking for something like this … for a long time. So we find this very exciting.”

Thomas and Collier have found that dual language programs are not just beneficial to students who are learning English. In North Carolina, for example, they found such programs significantly boosted achievement for low-income black students who do not speak Spanish at home. They found that learning in two languages boosts brain development and leads to students feeling more engaged and interested in school, even if Spanish isn’t their first language.

Throughout New Mexico, about 20 percent of the students participating in dual language programs are non-Hispanic, English-dominant students, Rogers said. At Truman, most speak Spanish at home.

Motivated families

Mirle Hernández, who coordinates Truman’s dual language program, said although she has no doubt dual language helps students become more successful, some of that success begins with families who choose the program.

“I think one factor that makes things a little different is that parents opt in,” Hernández said. “And for a parent to opt in, the family has had to have that discussion and so it’s a choice that is made, whereas in other programs kids fall into the schedules. I think that’s the first step, is that the parents are aware of a program that they want.”

Truman language arts teacher Arielle Street said dual language students are better able to make connections across concepts and disciplines.

“I find that the dual language kids, in general, have a broader perspective because they kind of live in two worlds all the time,” Street said. “So they’re able to make connections to their home world, and then also make more worldly connections because they are constantly negotiating these two lives.”

On a recent morning, Street was teaching a group of dual language seventh-graders about Mexican folk tales. Her class is taught in English, but she said she tries to help students embrace their heritage and the fact that they are bilingual and come from Mexican families.

“I think it’s important for them to feel a sense of pride in that tradition, instead of always apologizing for it,” she said. “There’s an instinct that they have, that I’m sure is learned, to apologize for being Mexican.”

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