January 21, 2014

Learning from Bilingual and Dual-language Programs in Chicago

by Kate Nussenbaum

Kate Nussenbaum ’15, who studies Cognitive Neuroscience, and Science and Society, reflects on her experience over winter break visiting best practice sites in Chicago with Nicole DellaRocco, a Master’s degree candidate in Urban Education Policy Research. Activities sponsored by TRI-Lab over winter break were driven by research needs and learning opportunities emerging from focused interdisciplinary work teams and the larger TRI-Lab cohort of faculty, community practitioners, and students. 

 
Should the goal of early education be to help Spanish-speaking children transition to English as quickly as possible even if that means they might miss the opportunity to become academically fluent in two languages? Should the goal be to enhance children’s academic Spanish skills even if that means delaying their acquisition of academic English?

Returning home from Chicago, I opened my backpack to find a drawing that Ayden had made for me. Ayden is five-years old and attends the Erie Neighborhood House center-based childcare program. He drew what I hope is an inaccurate picture of me while his other classmates played with play dough, built with cardboard and did puzzles. I could walk into a preschool in the Providence area and see kids doing many of the same things, with one notable exception. At Erie, teachers use both English and Spanish to communicate with the children in their classroom, enabling native English speakers to get a taste of the Spanish language while enabling native Spanish speakers to more easily transition to the school environment.

Erie is just one of the four bilingual and dual-language early childhood programs that Nicole and I visited over our two days in Chicago. According to data from the 2010 Census, 28.9 percent of Chicago’s population identifies as Hispanic or Latino, compared to 38.1 percent of Providence’s population. But while Chicago has a large number of bilingual and dual-language preschools and pre-Kindergartens, in part due to Illinois legislation that requires public pre-K’s to offer bilingual programs to meet the needs of their students, Providence has zero. There is only one Spanish-English bilingual center-based preschool program in Rhode Island: Progreso Latino, in Central Falls.

Nicole and I set out for Chicago with a number of questions. Could expanding kids’ access to bilingual and dual-language programs help close the achievement gap between native Spanish and English speakers in Rhode Island? What makes a bilingual or dual-language program successful? What type of program would have the best chance at succeeding in Rhode Island? What are the challenges associated with implementing a bilingual or dual-language program, and what are the benefits?

We met with teachers, students, principals and program directors at four different primarily publicly-funded programs. In addition to Erie House, which receives funding from Head Start, the Department of Education and tuition from some students, we visited the Talcott Elementary public school, the Namaste Charter School and the Inter-American Magnet School. All four schools primarily serve low-income kids from Spanish-speaking homes. While Erie House is a bilingual program that helps kids gradually transition to English before entering a monolingual English Kindergarten, the other three programs are dual-language, meaning they promote academic and social fluency in both English and Spanish for all students. In these programs, students in pre-K classrooms are taught mostly in Spanish, with a little bit more English added to their instruction each year. To reap the benefits of dual-language programs, students must attend for six to seven years, Diego Giraldo, the principal of the Inter-American Magnet School, told us.

Nicole and I left Chicago with more questions than answers. We went in search of a program model that would enable Spanish-speaking children to reach their full cognitive potential and thrive socially, emotionally and academically in school. But our final conversation with Principal Giraldo, really drove home the point that there are many social and political factors that dictate attitudes toward bilingual and dual-language education. Should the goal of early education be to help Spanish-speaking children transition to English as quickly as possible even if that means they might miss the opportunity to become academically fluent in two languages? Should the goal be to enhance children’s academic Spanish skills even if that means delaying their acquisition of academic English?

Still, we came home with some conclusions. As we observed programs, one thing became very clear. The relationship between teachers and students, particularly in preschool, seems more important than the curriculum used. And given the different models of early language education, before we can advocate for the creation of a specific program type, we need to understand the needs and desires of Latino families in Rhode Island. Are their kids in preschool programs? Why or why not? What are their academic goals for their children and what type of early childhood program would meet their needs?

Our trip taught us a lot about different models of early childhood Spanish-English education. But in traveling to Chicago, we realized how little we know about Providence. We need to take a step back, or perhaps forward, and really get to know the population we hope to work with. 

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