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York Daily Record

Spanish Immersion About More Than Sink Or Swim'; A York City School District Official Dreams Of A Language Magnet School


29 November 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved. 

Generations ago, immigrants coming to this country learned to speak English through the "sink-or-swim" method.

They were thrown into a class where only English was spoken and studied math, reading and science in a language they didn't know.

In California, opponents of bilingual-language education have led successful campaigns, arguing that if the "sink-or-swim" method worked for previous generations, it should work for children today.

But York City School Board member Jeanette Torres says the problem is that many of those earlier students simply sank.

An activist for the Latino community, Torres said, "some never really acquire the language. They start feeling like they can't do this, and they quit and go to work and get stuck in jobs that are dead-end."

The district's new Spanish immersion classes seek to ease that transition for Spanish-speaking students, while teaching English- speaking students to become bilingual.

And Torres, one of a team of district officials who helped bring the program to fruition, dreams the program will be so successful that York might one day have a magnet school for bilingual education.

Torres knows first-hand what has happened to immigrants in the days before bilingual education.

Her mother came to New Jersey from Puerto Rico when she was only 13.

She dropped out of high school, earned her G.E.D. but never learned to write in English.

Particularly because her mother was older when she started school in New Jersey and didn't understand what teachers were saying, Torres said she had difficulty keeping up in classes like math and science.

By the time Torres was born, both her parents had learned English.

In the home, they spoke in two languages. But when Torres got to school, her teachers wouldn't allow her to use Spanish.

When she reached high school, she wasn't permitted to take Spanish I, because she was told it would be "too easy" for her.

Because she was never fully immersed in the language, for years Torres felt uncomfortable speaking it.

It wasn't until her mother sent her to Puerto Rico for the summer to stay with her grandmother that Torres became confident being bilingual.

She said she believes the district's dual immersion strategy will be successful because all the elements are interrelated.

"It just fits together like a puzzle," she said.

By having half the class made up of native English speakers and the other half Spanish speakers, the students can learn from each other, she said.

Also, educators say for native English speakers to be able to pick up a second language well enough to speak it fluently and without an accent, they must be immersed in it before middle school.

For the Spanish-speaking students, it helps them gradually learn English while preserving their native language.

The strategies used particularly regarding the education of native Spanish-speaking students have not been without controversy.

In California, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz created the English for the Children campaign that led to Proposition 227 a ballot referendum opposing bilingual education.

In 1998, voters overwhelmingly approved the measure.

Six years later, English-language-learning students are faring better in learning English. But they are still lagging well behind native English speakers in other subjects, including English grammar and math, on California standardized tests and the debate is not over.

Still, Torres said it's important that Latino parents are able to have a choice in how their children learn whether through English- language immersion or transitioning in a class where the Spanish language is primarily spoken.

"To force people to strip their children of their native language isn't right," she said.

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