In Amanda Castaño’s classroom in a Long Branch public preschool, the four-year-olds get ready for reading circle with a song: "A leer, a leer, todos calladitos!" The native English speakers in the group join in as enthusiastically as the Spanish speakers, and when Castaño begins reading the story – in Spanish – the entire class is rapt.
Next door, the four-year-olds in Sean Kelly’s class raise their hands as he asks questions in English, including several students who started preschool as monolingual Spanish speakers. After a week, the two classes will switch places: Kelly’s students will go to Castaño’s room for a week of learning in Spanish, and Castaño’s students will join Kelly for a week in English.
The four-year-olds in both classes are part of an experiment in bilingual education in Long Branch preschools. This is the experiment’s second year, and school officials are pleasantly surprised at the rapid progress both English- and Spanish-speaking students made last year, not only learning their new language but also learning their letters and numbers. Already, the city has a small waiting list of parents who are interested in signing up their children.
It’s going to bring us [academic] benefits in the next five years,” the Long Branch superintendent, Joseph Ferraina, said.
The rapid growth of the Latin American immigrant population for the last three decades has left school districts throughout the United States grappling with how best to teach students who don’t speak English. The gap between Hispanics and whites on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card, has stayed fairly stagnant over the past few years in both math and reading, even as the country has become more focused on closing achievement gaps as required by the 2002 federal education law, No Child Left Behind.
Dual-language programs began to spread in the 1960s and 1970s but lost ground when concerns about immigration increased. Arizona and California have both mandated English-only education, and English-only policies were an issue in November’s election. Nationally, most districts are immersing children immediately in English-only classes or trying a more gentle transition, starting children out in Spanish-only classes and moving them gradually to English.
In New Jersey, however, a growing number of districts are trying the dual-language system in the early grades that is showing promise in Long Branch. Experts say it may be the most effective, despite its relative rarity across the country. In the Garden State, Long Branch joins Elizabeth, Perth Amboy and Plainfield as one of the fewer than 400 dual-language programs nationwide, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.
Robert Slavin, the co-director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk, says New Jersey may be smart to buck the national trends. In a major study released this year, Slavin found that English-only programs and transitional programs had basically the same effect on student achievement. In contrast, past research has found students learn English more quickly in dual programs, in addition to keeping their first language.
“There is evidence in favor it,” Slavin said. “The strongest evidence is for something that’s not quite two-way, meaning that the English-proficient kids are not necessarily learning Spanish, but the Spanish-dominant kids are learning both in Spanish and English.” Two-way programs can be expensive if they require extra teachers, and qualified bilingual teachers are often hard to find, he added.
Long Branch, along with the other New Jersey districts, based its model on a similar program in Englewood started in 1991. Administrators in Englewood say their program demonstrates that dual language is the better way and requires few extra resources. In 2007-2008, the most recent year for which data is available, 62 percent of the district’s limited-English students scored proficient or advanced on state literacy tests, compared with 47 percent of limited-English students statewide.
“The goal is always to close the achievement gap,” said Elizabeth Willaum, who founded the Englewood program. “The English language learners are truly proficient by the time they’re in third grade and they’re outperforming their English speaking counterparts.” (The district’s English language learners scored about the same as other student groups in the district on state tests in 2008; they were about 16 points behind white students statewide.)
The program also benefits native speakers who learn to think and interact in another language, says Willaum. On a recent Tuesday morning, sixth graders at McCloud Elementary School in Englewood – most who have been in the dual-language program since preschool -- joined in a math class discussion about the difference between multiples and factors. One native English speaker gave the class the definition of a factor in nearly flawless Spanish. Her only mistake – the conjugation of the verb multiplicar -- was gently corrected by another student, also a native English speaker, sitting nearby.
One of the benefits of a dual program is the attention placed on English language learners who might otherwise be isolated in separate classrooms, says Margarita Calderon, another researcher at Johns Hopkins who studies bilingual education. “It’s not just an ESL teacher, but it’s the whole school focusing on the needs of English language learners,” she said.
In Long Branch, slightly more Hispanic students scored proficient or better on state tests than the state average last year. In three years, when the bilingual program’s first class of students takes the test, Ferraina says he expects the scores to jump. “If the numbers show what we think they’re going to,” said Ferraina, “we should expand.”