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OpinionColumnistsAnne Michaud

Michaud: Two sides of dual-language instruction

Classrooms across Long Island were empty on Thursday.

Classrooms across Long Island were empty on Thursday. Check our listings of delayed openings, closures and cancellations to see what's in store for Friday. Photo Credit: Daniel Brennan

The rain was relentless on that June morning in 2003 when my 6-year-old daughter and I first visited her new school, Southdown Elementary in Huntington. Each with an umbrella, we circled the flooded parking lot and took a seat to hear about a new program, dual language.

One class of first-grade students would learn all subjects -- reading, math, geography, history -- in both English and Spanish. Bilingual teachers would teach 2.5 days a week in one language, and 2.5 days in the other.

I was thrilled at the opportunity for my child to learn Spanish, which would give her advantages in career and life. As a reporter, I knew bilingual journalists often fetched interesting assignments.

The school official that rainy morning cited studies about children's intellectual development. By the time they reached middle school, kids learning in more than one language were testing better than their peers in all subjects.

We were filled with optimism as we began. About two dozen families signed up, evenly split between native Spanish and English speakers. The English-speaking parents were, like me, ambitious for our kids and with great faith in education. I imagine the same was true for the Spanish-speaking parents, but although there was goodwill on both sides, language kept us from knowing each other well.

The class stayed together through fifth grade, but by then, there were fewer than 15 students. My daughter struggled but -- often reluctantly -- stayed with it. I made flash cards, English on one side, Spanish on the other. Learning from mistakes of that group, subsequent dual-language classes have had higher enrollment.

Several times a year, parents were invited to the classroom, and our kids would put on skits or recite lessons -- each child in his or her non-native language. At the end of each year, the kids performed a dance -- salsa or merengue -- and they took their Spanish Regents exams as sixth-graders.

I had suspected the dual-language program was a sly way to aid the growing Huntington population from El Salvador, Honduras and elsewhere. With buy-in from English-only homes, dual language gained acceptance more readily than the English-as-a-second-language approach, or traditional bilingual education. The community didn't see it as "us" versus "them."

Our experience was so positive that I was dismayed last month when the Board of Regents voted for a program, Ensuring Equal Educational Opportunities for English Language Learners. That would require school districts to add bilingual instruction whenever 20 or more students speaking the same non-English language at a single grade level enrolled.

This mandate promises to divide us if hiring ESL teachers absorbs other resources, especially as our schools struggle with tax caps and as 2,500 kids from Central America enter Long Island classrooms -- or not enter classrooms, in the case of Hempstead.

What were the Regents thinking? Why expand a tired program that separates kids instead of embracing a fresh alternative that unites them?

 

That first dual-language class is graduating from high school this year. One of the boys whose parents spoke only a little English is at the top of his class. Many kids from English-only homes continued with Spanish in high school and excelled.

On the phone recently with my mother-in-law, I mentioned that my second daughter, another dual-language student, was out attending a quinceañera, a traditional Hispanic celebration of a girl's 15th birthday. Her grandmother remarked that she must feel out of place -- but my husband and I just smiled. She was at the party with some of her best friends.

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