Silver Spring school blends instruction in English, Spanish

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 9, 2009

Whether someone speaks English or Spanish to you at Kemp Mill Elementary School can be a matter of walking a few feet in one direction or another.

The 193 students in the dual-language program at the school in Silver Spring, the only program of its kind in Montgomery County, move between two rooms. In one, English is spoken; in the other, Spanish. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the Pledge of Allegiance and announcements are in Spanish; on the other days, in English.

Somehow, it works, Principal Floyd Starnes said.

"There have been bilingual programs for years," Starnes said. "The secret is not just to have Spanish-speaking students. The secret is having them together" with English speakers, he said.

The Kemp Mill effort serves as a bilingual program for English-speaking students whose parents want them to learn Spanish and for Spanish speakers who must learn English. The remaining Kemp Mill students attend traditional classes.

In the dual-language program, which accounts for about half of the school's population, it isn't unusual for nearly identical lessons to be taught simultaneously in English and Spanish a short distance apart.

On "Thrilling Thursday" in the kindergarten English group, students shared their news -- one boy talked about going to the store after school -- and then sang a song that the teacher, Barbara Lambert, had written for them.

"Hi there, partner! What do you say?" the children sang. "It's going to be a cold day. Greet your friend and boogie down. Give them a bump and turn around."

A few feet away in Vivian Salazar's Spanish class, the Spanish-speaking children were reading from an illustrated book at the front of the room. "Mi abuela hacia tortillas para mi mamá," the children read aloud: "My grandmother made tortillas for my mother."

It's easy to forget how difficult learning English can be, even for a native speaker. Some of Kemp Mill's students are learning Spanish and English atop French, Amharic or Chinese.

But when a breakthrough happens, it is a glorious thing.

In Anne Doane's second-grade class, English- and Spanish-speaking students tried to figure out an analogy: "Oak tree is to acorn as pine tree is to ___." A boy compared it to a fruit, which was close. For a Spanish-speaking girl, the word was unfamiliar, but she knew what the answer looked like.

"It is brown," the girl said. "It has scales." So close.

It was based on a shape they'd learned about in math class, Doane hinted.

"Pine cone!" a boy declared, triumphant.

Spanish-speaking students are often quiet in predominantly English classes. But in Salazar's class, they gabbed away in Spanish.

"If you teach them in Spanish, it goes like that," said Alison C. Jefferson, the program's coordinator, snapping her fingers. "If you teach them in English, they run into difficulty."

The theory is that when Spanish speakers learn to read in Spanish first, they gain skills that can translate into learning English.

It's a long-term investment. On early assessments of English reading skills, they often don't perform well. But by the time they hit third grade, when they begin to take the English-only Maryland School Assessment exams, many have caught up.

At a school such as Kemp Mill, where a third of the students are learning English as a second language and two-thirds receive free and reduced-price meals, there is pressure from local and state authorities to do well.

The school reached state standards for academic progress last year, and 85.7 percent of its fifth-graders -- including students not in the dual-language program -- earned proficient scores on the state's reading exam, according to state data. Of the students in the dual-language program, a greater percentage passed, school officials said.

"One of the things I'm most proud of with our program is it's not just for the upper-middle-class parents," Starnes said. "We're seeing neighborhood kids, African American kids . . . a group of kids whose families do not normally access this."

"The bottom line is, we really believe in it," Jefferson said. "We've been trying for years to promote this program for English-language learners."

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