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Dual language program embraces language, culture

dual language classThis school year, Whittier Middle School became home to the very first sixth-grade dual language program at a middle school in San Antonio ISD. The program, which is one of the District’s ever-expanding dual language offerings, serves approximately 60 students, all of whose first language is Spanish.

The goal of SAISD’s dual language program is threefold: to develop bilingualism and biliteracy, bolster high academic achievement, and promote social-cultural competence. The program is an enrichment model that goes beyond providing access to the general curriculum in students' native language.

“These students really get to process and learn the information at a deeper level when they are learning in their first language,” said Irene Talamantes, principal at Whittier. “They feel very empowered; they are not shy. That is not usual for English language learners - usually they are very quiet, very reluctant to speak. But you put them in this type of classroom and the whole environment changes. They are more willing to answer questions because you have given them their language.” 

According to Esmeralda Alday, senior coordinator with SAISD’s Bilingual, ESL & Migrant Department, the secondary dual language program is also about students and teachers working together to claim their space and elevate the role of their language and culture in their schooling experience. Additionally, the program creates an early college path for students using their full linguistic repertoire as an asset.

“Our teacher and student are agents of change,” she said.

And one of those agents of change is Rebeca Covarrubias, sixth-grade dual language English language arts and Spanish teacher at Whitter. She teaches her dual language students English language arts in the mornings and then they come back to her in the afternoon for their Spanish language arts class. The content the students learn in Covarrubias’ two classes support each other, and they can relate the information acquired in one language to similar information they learn in the other language. 

“Now with this dual language program, they [students] feel like they have someone there to help them develop both their English and Spanish,” Covarrubias said.

The walls of Covarrubias’ classroom are covered in dual language word walls, bilingual vocabulary charts and loads of student work. Covarrubias was an English language learner when she came to San Antonio at the age of 13. In her current role, she has the opportunity to teach students who face the same struggles that she did.

Whitter DL

“When I came here, I was one of them,” Covarrubias said. “I didn’t know any English and I was placed in English as a second language classes all the way through high school. We want them to keep developing both languages, learning the academic language up to high school, up to college level. We want both languages to grow together.”

Manuel Rodriguez, dual language math teacher and coach at Whittier, jumped at the chance to teach dual language when the opportunity came about.

“I have always had my education in my native language, which is English,” he said. “To receive your education in your native language is something that we take for granted. To teach content in a student’s first language is so beneficial. They understand the concepts a whole lot better. They don’t have to struggle with decoding words.” 

Rodriguez says the social confidence that the students gain to communicate with their peers in Spanish and then turnaround and communicate in English is a double benefit. 

“To be able to communicate in both languages, that gives you an upper hand in the global society,” said Rodriguez. “They are so excited to be coming into my classroom and be able to use Spanish. This is the first cohort that has that. To realize that it is okay to speak in Spanish, its okay to think in Spanish. I’ve had students come from Cuba or Honduras who don’t speak any English and have only be in the United States a couple of months, and they are able to perform. They are able to do the math.”

Alday says one reason Whittier was selected for the dual language program is the high numbers of English language learners in the school.

“We were not taking advantage of their native language or tapping into this beautiful resource,” she said. “Not only the language but their culture and identity. When students stop using their home language, they lose a piece of their identity.”

Edison, CAST Med, and Lanier high schools are also offering the dual language program for the first time this school year. Brackenridge High School piloted the program last year, and is currently serving its second cohort of students, serving both freshman and sophomores. Currently, SAISD has 49 schools offering dual language programs – serving approximately 6,000 students. This number is up from two schools offering programs in 2016. 


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