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Austin dual-language schools seek more native Spanish speakers

Many native English-speaking parents recognize the value of being bilingual and the Austin school district has responded by increasing the number of dual-language programs in its elementary and middle schools.

However, the parents of native Spanish-speaking students have been wary of enrolling their children in such programs, in part due to historical reasons.

In a typical Austin dual-language classroom, half the day is spent with lessons taught in Spanish — generally sciences and language arts — while math is taught in English the second half of the day. Collaborative learning plays a big role. Ideally, pairs of students — one native in Spanish, one in English — help each other and learn from one another.

English-speaking students have to enroll while in pre-kindergarten or kindergarten. Hundreds of prospective students are on the waiting list for the 2016-17 school year, said Pedro Gonzáles, a school district dual language math and science curriculum specialist and father of three dual-language students.

Spanish-speaking students can join anytime. However, many Latino parents prefer to have their children in English-only classrooms.

The Austin school district enrolled 23,467 students in 2015-16 who are learning English, the majority of them Spanish-speakers, Gonzáles said. Dual-language classrooms included 2,953 English learners and 1,444 native English speakers in pre-kindergarten to fifth grade.

Some schools, such as Becker Elementary School in South Austin, need more English learners than others, he said. The district will also reach out to recruit more African-American children next year.

History has a lot to do with Latino parents’ hesitation to place their kids in dual-language classrooms: For decades, Texas schools had enforced Enlish-only laws passed in the early 20th century with humiliating punishments and fines for children caught speaking Spanish. Many native-Spanish speakers want their children to speak English only, so they won’t have accents or be discriminated against.

“Success is each of the students embracing each other’s culture and each other’s languages,” Gonzáles said.

“You have to take advantage of language skills Latino kids already have,” said Deborah C. Trejo, 46. Trejo’s children are enrolled in dual-language programs at Becker Elementary and Fulmore Middle schools.

“When you are strong in your first language, that helps your English,” she said citing research that supports this claim.

The Austin school district tried out dual-language programs in 10 schools in 2010. Last year, the first student cohort started middle school. Now dual-language programs are offered in eight middle and 56 elementary schools, including a Vietnamese dual-language program at Summitt Elementary School in North Austin and a Mandarin program at Doss Elementary School in Northwest Austin. The Pflugerville, Leander and Hays school districts also offer dual-language programs.

One advantage of dual-language programs is that participating students perform “a grade level or two above the monolingual students,” Gonzáles said.

Learning two languages gives students cognitive and linguistic advantages that make them better problem-solvers, according to research. When they finish their schooling and join the workforce, students who keep their native language and become bilingual earn an additional $5,000 annually, compared with those who lose their native language, according to research by the Civil Rights Project of the University of California Los Angeles.

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