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Espanol, English Mingling in Md. Classroom

At Kemp Mill Elementary in Silver Spring, Mya Moore, center, and Johnny Baur, right, conduct experiments during science class.  Tonya Moreno, who at times teaches in Spanish, watches. The school is one several in the area to embrace bilingual education.
At Kemp Mill Elementary in Silver Spring, Mya Moore, center, and Johnny Baur, right, conduct experiments during science class. Tonya Moreno, who at times teaches in Spanish, watches. The school is one several in the area to embrace bilingual education. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

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By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 12, 2006

The students in John Mahler and Shakira Holmes's first-grade class at Kemp Mill Elementary inhabit two worlds at the Montgomery County school.

In the world that is Room 103, the doormat reads "Welcome to our classroom'' and a basket is filled with such books as "Clifford the Big Red Dog."

But when students cross the threshold into Room 104, the doormat reads "Bienvenidos a nuestro salon de clase" and the book becomes "Clifford: El Perro Bombero" (Clifford the Firehouse Dog).

The youngsters are part of a dual-language immersion program whose aim is to have non-English-speaking students and their English-speaking counterparts help each other become bilingual.

During the school day, Mahler teaches children only in Spanish; Holmes speaks to them only in English. In fact, Mahler said, because the kids have never heard him speak English, some are not aware that their ponytailed instructor knows how to speak it.

"It's a unique approach to helping kids learn a second language -- one that's not sink or swim," Mahler said.

Some educators and parents see such programs as a way to address demographic changes in the nation and teach children to value other cultures. In 2000, 17 percent of students enrolled in public schools were Hispanic, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Because dual-language immersion requires a mix of English-speaking and non-English-speaking students, supporters say the program has an added benefit at such schools as Kemp Mill, where 35.9 percent of students do not speak English fluently. With both languages receiving equal billing, educators say the program can boost the self-esteem of non-native English speakers.

"The kids that have been looked at as 'Oh, those poor kids' -- well, now they're the models when it comes to speaking Spanish," said Mahler, Kemp Mill's first-grade Spanish teacher.

In most Washington area schools, non-English speakers are placed in classrooms where the majority of the instruction is done in English. They may receive some support from an aide who speaks their language or from a specially trained teacher who knows of strategies to use with non-English speakers. Some may receive instruction in reading or other topics in smaller groups with other students who don't speak English. And although a such students might maintain some of their native language, the goal is toward classes conducted in English as soon as possible.

The number of dual-language programs has grown steadily since established in the 1960s. Today, there are 329 such programs across the country, more than double the number 10 years ago. Two of the most well-known programs are in the D.C. region: Oyster Bilingual Elementary School in the District and Key Elementary School in Arlington.

Dual-language and bilingual education programs have their critics, however.


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