February 1, 2002

Nestor Elementary Students Making the Grade ... in both English and Spanish

By Yvette tenBerge

Raimond Galicia, 11, chats quietly with three boys whose desks are clustered around his. They pencil in answers to math questions, and although they whisper about skateboarding - a topic of great importance to the average sixth grader - Raimond is anything but your average elementary school student. Not only does he speak Tagalog, the language of his Filipino relatives, he also reads, writes and speaks both Spanish and English fluently.

Thanks to the dedication of teachers, parents and children in South San Diego, Nestor Elementary School, located at 1455 Hollister Street, is graduating the first sixth grade class to come through their Language Academy's Two-Way Immersion Program - and they are receiving the California Association of Bilingual Education (CABE) Seal of Excellence Award, to boot.

(Left to Right) Sixth graders Chelsea Jones, Alejandra Nuñez and Paola Arrendondo.

Phyllis Muñoz, Vice-Principal of Nestor Elementary, explains that the school operates on a four-track, year-round school system. Children in tracks "A" and "C" learn only in English, children in track "D" learn in keeping with a bilingual education and children in track "B" participate in the Language Academy.

"The bilingual track is a transitional program where the object is to move Spanish speaking kids into English. There is a different break-down of students in the Language Academy," says Ms. Muñoz, explaining that the program is one in which native Spanish and English-speaking children build fluency in both languages. "The Language Academy happens to be our largest track because of the interest we have in the community."

Statistics published by the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL), a non-profit organization that specializes in identifying and addressing language-related problems, has California leading the pack of states with Two-Way Immersion programs. Out of the 260 schools in the United States that offer such programs, 92 are in California. Although there are programs that focus on languages such as French, Chinese and Navajo, 244 schools teach the Spanish/English curriculum.

(Left to Right) Sixth graders Omar Garcia, Chris Nish, Anthony Soto and Raimond Galicia.

As for the academic performance of students enrolled in Two-Way Immersion programs, the CAL website lists a number of publications that support the claim that, in well-implemented programs, "both native English speakers and language minority students tend to do as well or better than their peers" who are enrolled in other, more traditional educational programs.

Linda Hardman, the Bilingual Resource Specialist for Nestor Elementary, began working with the Language Academy five years ago. As the coordinator of the program, she is responsible for working with teachers on professional development and monitoring the progress of students. Her belief in language immersion is based not only in the academic proof of its success, but also in personal experience.

"My parents put me in an immersion program when I was little. I am Greek, French and Irish, and when my grandfather came to this country, he lost his language. I feel for people who come to this country and experience this," says Ms. Hardman, whose siblings do not have her language training. "The Two-Way Immersion Program at Nestor is the most incredible program I have ever seen, so I'm a true believer."

Walk into a sixth grade classroom at Nestor, and the ratio of students in the Language Academy track is visible: 82 percent of the students are Latino, nine percent are Caucasian, five percent are African-American and four percent are Asian-American.

Chelsea Jones, 12, giggles and flips her long, blond hair when describing the surprise native Spanish speakers show when they discover that she can understand and converse in their mother tongue. "Lots of people don't expect me to know Spanish. When they find out, they always want me to speak it for them. When I do, they are shocked," says Chelsea, whose parents moved to San Diego from Tennessee. "My parents put me in this program so that I could learn both languages, get a better education and help other people."

Teresa Coronado, parent

Teresa Coronado, 33, is a parent who has volunteered at Nestor Elementary for the past 12 years. Two of her children are in the bilingual track, and she has a fourth grade daughter in the Language Academy's Two-Way Immersion Program. "The Academy is better, because they have time set aside for pure English and time for pure Spanish. It forces the kids to really learn," says Ms. Coronado, who is in the process of learning English, herself. "I tell my kids to speak English so that I can learn, too. Homework time is helpful for everyone in our house."

Yet it is not just parents with the forethought to place their children in such a program. Raimond smiles widely as he confesses that it was his desire to learn another language as early as the first grade, which lead his parents to search out Nestor's Language Academy.

"I told my parents that I wanted to learn another language and that I wanted to be in Spanish. My little sister is in first grade now, and she likes conversations a lot in Spanish. Some days, she chooses to speak all Spanish," says Raimond. When asked if his family benefits from his language ability, he nods his head. "When my aunts and uncles come to visit, we go to Mexico. When we are buying stuff, I can translate for my mom ­ I know she is happy because she knows she's not getting ripped off."

Ms. Hardman sits in her language trailer, surrounded by mounds of books and paperwork, and by colorful posters about Two-Way Immersion. When asked about the popularity of the Language Academy, she describes the environment in which the program was introduced seven years ago.

"We had to do a lot of recruiting throughout kindergartens in the district, but after a few years the word had spread," says Ms. Hardman, searching her database for next year's enrollment figures. "Now, we have 15 kids on the waiting list for kindergarten, and that is not including siblings who have priority."

In a country in which many still choose to emphasize the mastery of English to the exclusion of other languages, Nestor Elementary has chosen to prepare its students, regardless of their ethnicity, to successfully enter and compete in an ever-growing global market. As an expanding waiting list proves, satisfied families are coming back for more.

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