Turlock dual language school marks a milestone in Central Valley history

05/23/2014 5:10 PM

05/23/2014 7:51 PM

The Osborn Two-Way Immersion Academy is celebrating two decades of two languages, marking a milestone in Central Valley history, as well as a tale of achievement against the odds.

“It’s such a dream come true to stand before you 20 years later,” said Rosa Molina at a reception this month. Molina is executive director of the Association of Two-Way & Dual Language Education. In the 1990s, she mentored a handful of Turlock teachers who spearheaded a quiet revolution to gain languages, teaching Spanish speakers English and English speakers Spanish.

What started in 1994 as a few classes in a neighborhood school has grown into a magnet campus serving 870 students. It is expected to grow to 970 students next year with the addition of an early kindergarten program, said Principal Ed Ewing, “and we’ll still have a waiting list.”

Mary McCandless was one of the teachers who scoured the research on English learners, discovering a promising program just starting in the Bay Area. Convinced by the results, they still had to sway school leaders and parents, explaining how a program that starts by teaching in Spanish is a better way to teach English.

“Osborn was a magical place where the stars just aligned to make things happen,” said McCandless, now retired and with grandchildren in the program.

“We were the first and only dual immersion program in the Central Valley. We knew it had to be done right,” she said. The school’s demographics came close to the ideal mix of one-third English speakers, one-third Spanish speakers and the rest varying degrees of bilingual.

The program also had to survive the 1990s anti-bilingual education movement that peaked with the 1996 passage of Proposition 227. The initiative outlawed teaching in anything but English outside of foreign language classes. Parents had to sign waivers each year to keep their children in dual language classes, and the program struggled to find enough native English speakers to balance classes.

That has changed, Ewing said: With so many English-dominant students signing up, it is a challenge to balance with native Spanish-speaking kids.

There are now more than a dozen two-way language immersion programs in this area. Nationwide, more than 850 such programs exist, with a surge in interest over the past three years adding 150 to 200 a year.

But in the 1990s, Osborn teachers started from scratch. They paid their own way to conferences and to visit other schools, looking for what would work in Turlock, said Linda Alaniz, now principal of Crowell School.

“When we found there was such a benefit for English speakers, then it was a win-win,” Alaniz said.

But it was lackluster results teachers saw for Spanish speakers under the standard push to English that spurred the quest. “They learned some Spanish, but they never kept it, and they gained some English, but they kind of plateaued,” said Lilly Barron, who still teaches at Osborn.

What she saw was a well-documented drift for English learners who master just enough vocabulary to get by, not enough to do well in higher-level courses. Without formal instruction in their native tongue, street slang and home chatter are all they know of that language.

Results stand behind the dual language model, showing markedly higher achievement in upper grades for both English learners and native English speakers. “The research still stands solid,” Molina said.

Osborn uses the purist model that research shows to be higher achieving, she said. Kindergartners spend 90 percent of the schoolday taught in Spanish, 10 percent in English. First grade is 80 percent Spanish, gradually shifting to an even split in fourth grade.

The Modesto City Schools’ immersion program spends a half day in English, a half day in Spanish in all grades. That model, too, shows better results than English-only programs paired with intensive English instruction, Molina said.

But Ewing sees benefits beyond speaking and writing in two languages. “I thought it was a great thing for my sons to have the opportunity to learn Spanish. But it was not until I became principal that I have come to appreciate how much more than language kids get out of this school,” he said.

All kids in the program face the discomfort of being taught in an unfamiliar language from Day One. “They really do learn to learn from each other,” Ewing said. That interdependence fosters respect, he said.

Students can join a ballet folklorico dance troupe led by school secretary Michelle Carillo. The campus holds holiday events. But the cultural exchange goes deeper, he said. “They’re learning to become an empathetic human being. They’re learning how to feel comfortable being with people different from yourself.”

The shift from neighborhood school to dual language magnet brought with it better attendance and higher average test scores. “Discipline (problems) dropped off dramatically,” Ewing said. “Our kids look out for each other.”

Which is not to say they’re perfect, notes Assistant Principal Jose Lopez. “Kids are kids,” he said. “But these students are much more focused. They’re less inclined to be bored.” He credits the mental discipline of learning a second language for that focus.

Parent involvement at the school is high. “We have an extremely active PTA,” Ewing said. A seven-week Latino Family Literacy program brings in Spanish speakers.

“The really awesome part is those parents stick around,” he said. “So here you have this true, multicultural mix of parents working side by side to do nice things for our kids.”

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