Jun 07, 2012

A Few Hiccups as Dual-Language Program Expands in Austin Schools

By Lynda Gonzalez
For Reporting Texas

Ileana Abounader wanted her two sons to participate in Becker Elementary’s dual language program, but only her first-grader gets to have his classes in Spanish and English. Abounader’s fourth-grade son is too old to participate because the Austin Independent School District’s Two Way Immersion Dual Language Program only goes to the second grade.

Abounader’s situation is just one of several issues for parents who want their children to participate in the program, according to Claudia Santamaria, the district’s supervisor of parent programs. Administrators are already looking at ways to smooth the bumps of the dual-language program as it expands from six to nine elementary schools in the next school year and to middle schools and secondary education in coming years.

The two-way language program started its pilot phase at three schools in the 2010 school year. Based on the Gómez and Gómez Dual Language Enrichment model, the program aims to take students to grade-level bilingualism and biliteracy by the fifth grade. Olivia Del Valle, the substitute assistant director of dual language, said the program is entering its third year, and that once it reaches the fifth grade, the district can begin considering expanding the program to higher grades.

She said the district would be able to look at longitudinal data to show where the program needs adjustments. “We have good communication and surveys that go out to parents and to teachers and to administrators to provide us with feedback as to what things are needed,” she added.

Del Valle said parents are concerned about the program’s availability for households with more than one child. Because parents individually enter each child into a lottery to get into the program, it is likely that one sibling wins a spot while another does not. But Santamaria said that the top scholastic concern as the program expands to a higher grade level each year is the capability of parents to assist their child with their bilingual homework assignments.

“The first cohort is only in second grade, so it’s still fairly easy language at this point,” she said. “We work with teachers and staff developments to make sure the instructions are both in English and Spanish and try to scaffold some support for our parents. But I think as the kids get older, we’ll have to address that again and see where parents are in and around the homework issue.”

Despite some initial problems, Santamaria said parents like the program. Especially noticeable is the value of collaboration among students with different native languages, she said.

As far as households that have a child in the program and one left out, the district has not yet decided whether to give siblings priority consideration. Abounader said that currently she’s not too concerned about the difference in education for her sons, because her eldest has been exposed to what she likes to call “dual language light.”

“He’s lucky, because he’s had the same teacher for the last two years who has been doing a kind of unofficial dual language in his class,” she said about her fourth-grader, who despite not being in the program has also benefited from taking different subjects in Spanish. “He’s been making tremendous progress,” she said.

But next year, her older son won’t have the same teacher, so even his unofficial language program might end. That is why as Becker looks to hire several new teachers, Abounader is working with the parent-teacher association to press administrators to consider teachers who have qualified bilingual skills to lead the official program once it rolls out to the fifth grade and beyond.

The new teachers, Abounader said, “can actually start getting his or her feet wet with several students who have been doing this kind of ‘dual language light,’ and with these parents who are really interested in their students getting more language enrichment in the classroom.”