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Poquoson Steeps Pupils In Spanish…Former Latino Grads Give Back By Returning To Teach

Poquoson Steeps Pupils In Spanish


February 14, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Daily Press. All rights reserved.

Tuesdays and Thursdays are special for fourth- and fifth-grade students at Poquoson Elementary School.

Not only are the students treated to a unique group of visitors, but on those two days, everyone speaks in Spanish -- in their classrooms, as they pass each other in the hallways and when they go to lunch.

"Hasta," they call out to passing friends while changing classes.

"Adios," their friends respond.

Throughout the school are signs offering the Spanish translation for things like the main office, light fixtures, the library and the bathrooms. There's even a poster of cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants speaking in Spanish.

Visitors might think they've wandered into a foreign country, but they haven't. They've just stepped into the world of "Conversation Buddies," a program in which the students spend the day interacting with local residents from Spanish-speaking countries.

The program is designed to help students become more comfortable in speaking the language, said Ada Rivera, one of the school's three Spanish teachers.

The Conversation Buddies program is another effort by Poquoson City Schools officials to help students become proficient in Spanish by the eighth grade. It is funded by a $238,000 Foreign Language Assistance Program grant, which also pays for Spanish-language books.

School officials decided three years ago to make it a priority to start teaching the language on a daily basis to its elementary-age students. Their plan is to offer daily instruction through middle school, which goes beyond exploratory programs that just expose students to foreign languages. Noting that 28 million people in the U.S. speak Spanish at home, school officials say the program will give their students a competitive edge.

The School Board added Spanish to the third-grade curriculum in 2001, with fourth- and fifth-graders following in subsequent years. The goal is for all students to be proficient in Spanish by the eighth grade. It's scheduled to become a mandatory course for sixth-graders next year.

That push, however, is meeting opposition from parents who say their children shouldn't have to sacrifice reading for Spanish. The parents would prefer, they say, for the course to be an elective.

Proponents point to things like the popularity of the Conversation Buddies program.

"You can tell their fluency is getting better, and the children really enjoy it," said Rivera.

"It's opened them up and they've lost that fear that they will make a mistake," she said. "The most important thing is their comfort level in speaking has gone up and they're vocabulary is being expanded. Now when I teach, they know the words or they're words that they have heard before."

As Rivera walks into a fourth-grade class, the children are chattering excitedly.

"Buenos dias," she says.

"Buenos dias, Senora Rivera," they sing back in unison.

"Que dia es?" she says, asking the students to tell her the day's date.

Hands eagerly shoot into the air.

"Cinco de Feburo," a girl says when Rivera asks her for the answer.

Next, attention turns to the weather, with Rivera asking the children to describe it for her.

"El tiempo esta hace soleado," one boy says.

"El tiempo esta hace poco frio," another girl answers.

Satisfied with their answers, Rivera then introduces the four women gathered around her.

Margarita Stephen of Newport News and Francisca Cronk of York County are natives of Madrid, Spain. York residents Maribel Berrios and Maricel Arus are from Puerto Rico. In addition to helping the students improve their language skills, the women also share aspects of their cultures.

Once the students are divided into four groups, the women and children introduce themselves. Using an assortment of pictures, buddies engage the students in conversation and ask them to describe what they're seeing.

"Que pasa? What's happening?"

"Describemelo. Show me."

"It's important for them to learn a language in elementary school, because it's easier to learn accents when you're young," said Cronk.

"They also don't mind making mistakes," said Stephen, who also serves as a teacher assistant for the Buddies Program. The position is funded by the FLAP grant the school district received for the program, according school officials.

Cronk agreed.

"How well they do depends on the level of the class," she said. "It's a challenge for them, but some are speaking in complete sentences and asking questions."


Do you speak Spanish? Students at Poquoson Elementary School have been learning Spanish for the past three years. Here's a sampling of some of the things the students are learning. For more examples, see C2.


Good Morning


Ball cap




The School Board began adding Spanish to the curriculum in 2001, beginning with third grade, because members want all Poquoson students to be proficient in the language by the eighth grade. Here's a sampling of more words and phrases the students are learning.

* Hoy es cinco de Feburo -- Today is February 5.

* El tiempo esta hace soleado -- The weather is sunny.

* El tiempo esta hace poco frio -- The weather is a little cold.

* La ropa y accesorios -- Clothing and accessories

* el gorro -- cap

* el sombrero -- hat

* la chaqueta -- jacket

* la camista or la playera -- T-shirt

* las gafas or los anteojos or los espejuelos or los lentes -- eyeglasses

* los lentas de contacto or las lentillas -- contact lenses

* las sandalias or las chanclas -- sandals

Former Latino Grads Give Back By Returning To Teach


February 22, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

PHOENIX (AP) - Stephen Escudero, a Carl Hayden High School graduate, never viewed college as an option. Vanessa Valenzuela admitted to "always hating school." Mario Malaby took innumerable trips to the office for being disruptive and ditching class.

The three could have been part of a distressing statistic, among the 30 percent of Latino students in Arizona who don't finish high school. Instead, they're success stories and role models to the hundreds of students they teach every day at Carl Hayden High School in west Phoenix.

"We all wanted to give back to the school that helped us remain on track," said Valenzuela, 25, who teaches English. "We want our kids to know that they can have dreams and aspirations and make them come true. We're living proof of that, because it wasn't too long ago that we were them."

The three, all in their 20s, illustrate ongoing recruitment efforts by Phoenix area school districts to close the growing racial disparity between teachers and students.

Minorities account for nearly half of Arizona's public school students. But only 16 percent of their teachers are ethnic minorities, according to figures from the Arizona Department of Education. Closing that gap is a top priority because minority teachers serve as role models for students at higher risk for dropping out, said Craig Pletenik, spokesman for the Phoenix Union High School District, where 86 percent of its 23,000 students are minorities.

"I don't know of a school district here that's happy with its number of minority teachers. We all want more."

But diversifying those ranks isn't always easy when minority candidates are in such demand. Pletenik characterized the competition to hire them as "brutal."

Malaby, 26, knows that all too well. Now in his third year of teaching, the local boy with the jocoso (jocular) personality has taught in Hawaii and Puerto Rico. He is one of a rare breed: a bilingual, minority special-education teacher.

"I like to travel and knew that as a special-ed teacher, I could move around a bit because of the special-ed (teachers') shortage," he said. "But my family owns a business across the street from Carl Hayden, so I always knew I'd come back."

Savvy school districts target former students for teaching slots because it often makes the difference in retaining them, said Josue Gonzalez, an education professor at Arizona State University in Tempe.

Phoenix Union, which pays starting teachers $3,000 above the state average of $29,000, is developing a reputation for hiring alumni. They include four teachers at Carl Hayden, seven at Camelback, eight at South Mountain and 10 at Central. Gonzalez thinks that's good business.

"A third of all teachers leave the profession within five years, and many are bolting from inner-city schools because they didn't know what to expect," Gonzalez said. "But alumni hires know what to expect and have a vested interest in the school, so they'll likely stay on."

Few Latinos of either gender seek teaching credentials. For example, only 13 percent of the 4,524 students enrolled this year in the teaching program at Arizona State University in Tempe are Latinos.

Still, the percentage surpasses the total Latino enrollment at ASU, which is 11 percent. Gonzalez credits various programs, including ENLACE, which targets minority high school students to entice them to go to college.

"We're starting to (make) incremental gains," said Gonzalez, who oversees ENLACE. "They're baby steps."

Arizona's Latino dropout rate is more than double the national rate, estimated at about 15 percent. Carl Hayden has about 2,350 students -- 97 percent of them minorities. Of those, 92 percent are Latino, including 62 percent who live in monolingual Spanish-speaking homes, said Principal Steve Ybarra. Having teachers that culturally identify with students and parents can make all the difference in the world, he said.

"You have to hire the best teachers. Period," said Ybarra. "But when the best ones are Latinos and they happen to be former students, then you hit the jackpot. They know the school and understand its culture and nothing is going to stand in the way of their kids learning."

Valenzuela and Escudero, a 23-year-old World history and government teacher, often remind students that they're Carl Hayden alumni.

"I'll tell them, 'I know what you're doing because I used to do that. You're not fooling me.'" Valenzuela said. "I feel sorry for my old teachers now."

"It's total reparation to the 10th power," Malaby said, teasing.

The trio, who were friends in high school, said they're not on a first-name basis with many of their former teachers.

"It just feels weird," Valenzuela said.

She wishes more Latinas would become teachers to serve as role models for the girls who sometimes view college as an unrealistic expectation.

"They'll tell me, 'You don't have any kids and you got a college degree?' like it's this amazing thing," she said. "I tell them 'I was just like you. I used to get into trouble sometimes, but I remained focused because I wanted a career. You can do the same thing.' They need to see women that look like them that have succeeded."

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