Students struggling to learn English have traditionally been regarded as a bit of a challenge in your standard public school. But in Urbana, these kids are valued for their ability to help their English-speaking peers learn a second language.
It’s done using mixed classrooms where the teachers speak only Spanish for as much as 90 percent of the day. That percentage ramps down as the kids get older. In the earliest grades, the English-speaking students may not even realize that they’re soaking up a new language.
When a reporter asks kindergartner Madeline Cooper-Peyton what’s she’s learning at Urbana’s Leal Elementary School, the little girl says, “Nothing.”
Her older brother Julian, a third-grader in the dual-language program, corrects her:
“You’re learning Spanish.”
Madeline, who was just about six weeks into the program at the time of our interview, insists that she’s not. She admits her teacher speaks Spanish, “but I don’t know what she says.”
But when asked what color her shirt is, she knows it’s “rosa.” And asked how old her brother is, she counts on her fingers -- in Spanish -- “Ocho!”
Eventually, she offers to list all the Spanish words she knows: Words for her pets, numbers one through 15, and then Spanish terms for poop and buttocks. (Julian admits he taught her those terms).
But that’s part of what makes the dual-language program work: Kids trading vocabulary on the playground.
Madeline and Julian’s mom, Erica Cooper-Peyton, says it’s this different world view that inspired her to put Julian on the waiting list to get into Leal Elementary’s dual-language program.
“It’s such a rich cultural experience for everyone,” she says. “It’s not just seeing other chldren who have had the same experiences as him, that speak the same language. It’s kids who come from all different backgrounds, whose families come from all different backgrounds, and that’s really important to me and to his dad.”
Leal Elementary had previously used the more traditional approach known as English as a Second Language, or ESL. That meant that kids who weren’t fluent in English were segregated into separate classrooms where teachers focused on helping them acquire a new language. But in 2012, Joe Wiemelt used academic research to persuade Urbana educators to make the switch to a dual-language approach. He’s director of equity and student learning for the Urbana School District.
“As a dual language program, we operate a 90-10 model. So at the kindergarten level, 90 percent of the day’s in Spanish; 10 percent of the day is in English,” he says. “And then as the students matriculate up the grades, it shifts by 10 percent, so that in 1st grade it’s 80-20, 2nd grade it’s 70-30, 3rd grade is 60-40, and then in 4th grade it switches to 50-50, half-day English and half-day Spanish. And then it continues that way... into middle school.”
Wiemelt is a native English speaker. He’s also fluent in Spanish, but he got what he considers to be a late start.
“I started learning Spanish as a second language, actually not until college,” he says. His professor was from the Dominican Republic, and Wiemelt ended up spending part of his undergraduate career in the Dominican, and then teaching in a bilingual program there.
Wiemelt has his own children in the Urbana program, and revels in the way it’s transforming his family.
“The way they’re growing up is drastically different from the way I grew up,” he says. “For example, on the way to school, they’re asking to speak in Spanish, they’re asking to listen to Spanish music, to salsa music or reggaeton or whatever. That’s kind of our dad/son time. We speak in Spanish a lot at home -- sometimes behind my wife’s back, who doesn’t speak Spanish, and sometimes with her, to teach her. So we have fun with it.
“It’s really challenged our views and my broader family’s views -- my parents and my brothers and sisters -- of what it means to be white Americans. And my kids are having conversations with their relatives about language and culture that’s kind of challenging their aunts and uncles in ways that I love. So it’s just shaping our family dynamics differently.”
His passion for the program has paid off. It’s been so popular that the adjacent Champaign school district has launched a similar program, and the Urbana program has expanded.
“We have just under 400 students in the dual-language program at the elementary level right now, with plans to continue to expand that,” Wiemelt says. “It’s been a huge success so far.”
In fact, there’s a waiting list for both Urbana schools that offer dual-language (Leal and Dr. Preston L. Williams Jr. Elementary). Students from Spanish-speaking homes are automatically admitted to the program if their families want them to be placed in it, so the wait-list is entirely made up of English-speaking families eager to have their children learn Spanish. The lists include families who live in the two schools’ attendance zones as well as families hoping to transfer in.
There’s more than 850 school districts in Illinois, but only about a dozen offer a dual-language program. One of the first was District 112, headquartered in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park. Jaime Barraza, who coordinates District 112’s language programs, says they’re also seeing a surge in dual-language enrollment.
“We have our largest dual language class that we’ve had on record,” he says. “Within the past few years, our program has definitely gained in popularity, and we have opened up new classes of dual-language at the kindergarten level because of demand.”
What accounts for this sudden enthusiasm for a decades-old program?
“There’s been a lot more research that’s come out about bilingualism and the cognitive benefits,” he says.
Studies have shown that people who are bilingual tend to have less trouble focusing on a task, and switching focus to a different task. Bilingual children seem to be faster at developing empathy. And students literate in more than one language tend to score higher on reading tests -- in English -- no matter what their native tongue might be. In short, the theory that mastery of a new language requires shelving the old one has been thoroughly debunked. Using your native language to help acquire a new one works so much better.
“Dual language, as a program, what it does is, it capitalizes on what a student brings from home in either language to help them learn the partner language,” Barraza says. “So the conventional wisdom of ‘If you’d like to learn English, you add more English’ doesn’t hold up to the research.”
Ricardo Diaz had heard that theory. It’s one of the reasons he moved his family into the Leal Elementary attendance zone, to make sure his son Benjamin could get into the dual language program. But still, he was surprised by the effect it had on his son.
“I mean, first year, in kindergarten … he learned how to read in Spanish. And that summer, we were going to Mexico. We ended up driving all the way to Mexico City. And by the time we were driving back, he was reading in English. And we never taught him!” Diaz says. “He learned first how to read in Spanish …. But then when he gets English, it was like: The research is true! You support kids in their native language and they transfer those skills to learning in the other language. And for me, that’s coming back to why the program is good. It’s based in good theory, and bear it out.”
Diaz represents a major faction in these dual-language programs -- families who don’t have a simple answer to the basic question: What language is spoken in your home?
He says Benjamin grew up hearing mostly English, “unless I got mad or something,” but that his now-8-year-old son is becoming naturally bilingual. Over this past summer, he witnessed Benjamin using Spanish to argue about turns on a video game with other kids who spoke only Spanish. “It was huge!” Diaz says. “It was my first time watching him rely on Spanish to do the hard work of negotiating. It’s hard, because you have to be thinking about what you want, how to say it, and in what language to say it. But he got it.”
Diaz himself became bilingual the old-fashioned way. His family crossed the border from Chihuahua, Mexico to the U.S. when he was 12 years old, and knew one English term: “Yeah.”
“I struggled. I can still remember sitting in front of the record player, practicing,” he says. “I went to the library a lot and read books that I could understand. But I particularly worked hard because I had felt so … it wasn’t just bullied. I was working at a disadvantage.”
A teacher he remembers as “Mrs. Tucker” lent him her pocket-edition English-Spanish dictionary. “I felt embarrassed giving it back to her at the end of the year, because it was so worn,” he says. “But I needed it.”
His journey to double-fluency was rough; his son’s, by contrast, is so perfectly planned and paved that Diaz sounds a bit stunned.
“I love it! I love it that they have it laid out because it creates the situation where we are bilinguals and it’s okay to speak the other language,” he says. “One of the motivations for us to be part of this program was that the parents are, by the nature of a classroom, together often, and therefore we get to know each other. And then it’s easy for the parents to also gain, because the kids are socially in the language. So it’s no longer just the academic side. We all mingle, and we’re all part of the exchange.”
I discovered a couple of other ways to test the value of the dual-language program when I sat down with two 5th graders. It turns out that Kelby, who comes from an English-only home, has a big sister who went through Leal Elementary before this program started. She now asks him for help with her Spanish homework.
Ignacio, whose mom is a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois, is able to compare this program to his English classes back home in Chile. “They weren’t as good quality as here,” he says. It took him a minute to adjust to living in an English-speaking country, but he realizes how difficult it must be for his new friends to have learned Spanish here.
“My friends over here have been really learning a lot of Spanish, and I think it must’ve been really hard for them to learn, because this is a country where you speak all the time English, and then all the sudden you go in this school and everyone is speaking Spanish,” he says. “So I think it could’ve been really hard for them.”
Wiemelt, the educator who established Urbana’s program, believes it could be replicated almost anywhere.
“There are districts that view it as extra work and as something that is not necessary and that is only for districts that have money. Urbana is not a district that has lots of resources to pull from in terms of money,” he says, “but we view our students as our students. And if this is the best thing for them, this is what we’re going to do.”