Language Program Helps Suburban Latinos | WBEZ
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Language Program Helps Suburban Latinos

Overall, Latino students continue to lag behind white students in academic achievement. But when it comes to educating Spanish-speaking students, one program might be closing that gap. It's called dual-language immersion. In Northwest Suburban Woodstock, the district is replacing traditional bilingual education with this different way of teaching. For WBEZ Mark Rivera reports Woodstock is banking on the program propelling students into college.

VELASCO: My name is Edgar Velasco. I come from Mexico...I been here already like 14 years, maybe more than that, 17 years, and I'm working at a factory injecting plastics, molding…

Edgar Velasco sits next to his wife and oldest daughter on the blue-gray couch in their living room. His wife, Maria, doesn't say too much because she's not that confident with her English.

Their daughter, is another story.

RIVERA: So you're going into 5th grade right? Are you excited?
EDMARITH Yes. Last year. What I'm exited about is it's my last year, and that I made it the whole through…I never thought I was going to be in 5th grade from being the small kids in and all that in first grade.

That's Edmarith. She goes to Mary Endres Elementary in Woodstock. She speaks great English. And so does her younger sister, Michelle.

MICHELLE: First, when you go to school, you need to read, and I only see the pictures…
VELASCO: And what else? You're gonna be with your sister.
MICHELLE: Oh YEAH! I forgot!
VELASCO: It's the only year they're going to be together.

Both girls are enrolled in Woodstock's dual language program. It's something only 23 Illinois school districts have.

Most districts educating Spanish speakers use bilingual models designed to transition students away from Spanish and into English fluency.

But the dual language model puts native Spanish and English speakers together in the same class. In Woodstock, the students are taught half in Spanish and half in English – the entire curriculum is taught in two languages.

By the end of 5th grade, dual language students should be fluent in both English and Spanish.

But that's not the only reason Keely Krueger brought the program in. She's Woodstock's bilingual coordinator.

KRUEGER: So this would be data of um...here's math reading, data, and language usage...

Krueger says Woodstock has a strong bilingual program. She brought dual language in not just because it's better for native Spanish speakers like Edmarith and Michelle - it's also better for Anglo students.

KRUEGER: They are performing as well or better than their peers on the ISAT test, even though half their day they have been learning in a second language, which is Spanish.

The success of the program has caught on in the district. Now, families are on a waiting list to get their kids in.

However, critics of the program say it can be risky for Latino students. If they leave for a mainstream program, they can find themselves behind in English.

But in north suburban Evanston, bilingual coordinator Sarah Mendez is convinced dual language is still the best way to educate Spanish speakers. Her district has completely replaced its bilingual program with dual language. Mendez has seen the ISAT data.

MENDEZ: After having gone through the dual language program, those students who are English proficient, how did they do on the test? And it's 96 point something, its close to 97 percent meets and exceeds on the ISAT test. Which means, they are not only doing well, they are soaring.

According to a five year longitudinal study on language programs across the country, dual language students perform better in both languages than in any other program studied. Kids in dual language were also less at risk to drop out.

But, the program can't work everywhere. It works in places like Woodstock and Evanston because they have a substantial and stable Latino population. Without the right mix of Latino and non-Latino students throughout the grade levels, districts just can't support the program.

ambi: Children calling out Spanish vocabulary in unison. Fork: Tenador. Knife: Cuchillo.

In Woodstock, dual language is now so popular the district offers this dual language summer camp. Six years ago, the dual language program only had 40 students. This year, it will have around 700.

JOSH: Primero, doblar un hotdog...segundo, doblar dos veces un hamburger...y cortar a dos bugadas…

This is Josh. He's a fifth grader in Woodstock's dual language camp. He's a native English speaker, like the other kids here. He's come to get some extra Spanish over the summer.

Josh's mom, Laura Powell, is thrilled her 5th grader understands more Spanish than her college freshman. But she also thinks this has been a cultural awakening. She recalls struggling to help Josh with his homework.

POWELL: I think it's opened his world up to not be so focused on white Caucasian people and just speaking English. You know, I can just imagine people who can't speak English and their kids coming home and them being so frustrated because they can't help their kids write an English paper. I have a lot of feelings for them that it just, it just must be a struggle.

Helping Anglo kids with their homework on the phone is something Edgar Velasco says his daughter does. He also says dual language has kept his Oaxacan culture alive in his children.

VELASCO: That's why I support 100 percent this program, because it really keeps the Spanish, everyday, and not just speaking outside on the streets, but in the classroom.

ambi: Oaxaca music

Woodstock's Dual Language program started in 2004. The first group of dual language kids is heading into 6th grade this year. The district plans to keep the program going all the way through high school.

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