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Telegram & Gazette Worcester, MA
Languages Elementary In Clinton ; Youngest Pupils Adept In English, Spanish
October 8, 2002
CLINTON -- Connie D. Cooper held up a black lacy fan, and asked her first-grade pupils to identify the country it came from. But she did not say the word "fan." She said "avanico" -- fan in Spanish.
The pupils understood. In fact, they understand a lot of Spanish, because all day long Ms. Cooper teaches various subjects by switching back and forth from Spanish to English.
The Pledge of Allegiance is recited in both languages. A song is sung in both languages. Then, the pupils sit on a rug in a corner of the room to review the days of the week, months of the year, vowels and numbers, and to practice telling time and identifying pictures of objects and animals -- all in Spanish and English.
Next, the pupils sit in front of a cultural bulletin board, loaded with flags and items from Spanish-speaking countries such as pinatas, sombreros, worry dolls, a bow and arrow, and the avanico. And in a nod to Irish Clinton, there is an Irish flag tacked to the top of the board.
In the afternoon, Ms. Cooper teaches more Spanish vocabulary, and the pupils get to read books in Spanish. The nine Latino pupils, exactly one-half of the class, have a good English base, she said, but occasionally need reinforcement. They read English books.
"They all seem to really enjoy the back-and-forth," Ms. Cooper said. "They are really into it, and they are definitely ready for it.
"It really helps with social barriers. They are all mixed in -- there are no cliques and no racial comments."
The same routine goes on in Lisa Philbin's kindergarten class, where the pupils yesterday were asked their favorite color, in Spanish. The choices were: rojo (red), amarillo (yellow) and anarajado (orange.) All answered in Spanish.
"They learn easier when they are younger," Mrs. Philbin said. "They get to see both languages in use as much as possible."
Down the hallway, Becky Janda's second-graders, some of whom began learning Spanish when they were in the first dual-language kindergarten class, were playing a more complicated game involving "las galletas" -- cookies. The pupils had no trouble rattling off long sentences in Spanish.
The Dual Language Acquisition program at the Clinton Elementary School began three years ago. It has become so popular a lottery is required each year to select children for the Spanish-English classrooms. There is one class each in kindergarten and Grades 1 and 2. But Assistant Principal Kenny Contreras, who also is the bilingual education coordinator for the school system, said there would still be a waiting list if there were two dual language classrooms per grade.
Ms. Contreras, a native of Puerto Rico who moved to Shrewsbury 20 years ago, said that up until age 9, children are able to learn a foreign language without having to translate words, a much more difficult process.
For example, she said, the words "home," "house" and "casa" (Spanish for house) would all be treated the same in the young child's brain.
"It's just like expanding your vocabulary," she said.
There have been brain imaging studies done on young children learning languages, she said, that demonstrate how the words are processed differently.
"There has been a lot of research interest in this, but the programs need to be run properly," she said. Skilled bilingual teachers, along with parent support, are necessary, she said.
Ms. Cooper is a native Spanish speaker. Mrs. Philbin learned Spanish in Costa Rica years ago, and travels with her family to Guatemala each summer. Ms. Janda worked in Guatemala, and also returns there annually.
Ms. Contreras brought the program to Clinton after observing and studying it in other school districts for about eight years. Also, she said, when she moved with her children to Shrewsbury, she encountered all of the problems of assimilating into the community.
"A key component of this is getting both cultures together. If parents have kids in the same class, they will have something in common, and they will get together in the neighborhoods -- pupils get invited to each other's birthday parties," Ms. Contreras said.
The Nov. 5 state election ballot will have a referendum asking voters to replace the current law providing for transitional bilingual education in public schools.
According to the ballot question, the proposed law would require that all public school children learn English by being taught all subjects in English, and by being placed in English classrooms -- a method usually called immersion. Under the proposed law, a parent could sue a teacher for using a child's native language other than English.
Opponents, including the Legislative Joint Committee on Arts, Education, and Humanities, call the law inflexible and overly simplistic, with no choice given to local school districts.
Ms. Contreras said all of the non-English-speaking pupils in last year's second-grade dual language class have made the transition to mainstream classrooms.
Principal Geraldine A. Sargent said pupils from last year's Grade 2 dual language class did well on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests.