by Beatriz García Glick
I speak three languages, two of which I learned as a child. I grew up in Madrid, Spain, where my mother spoke to me mostly in English and my father spoke to me in Spanish. Because we only spent three hours per week studying English in school, I spent many summers improving my English.
As an adult, I realized the advantages that I had speaking two languages and decided to learn a third (French) in order to grow as a person and expand my professional opportunities.
Just as my parents instilled in me the importance of learning languages as part of my education, I taught Spanish to my children. Because the importance of our children’s education is a value that we all share, I think we should consider implementing a Dual Language program in the Hazleton, Pa. schools.
A Dual language program is a two-way immersion-learning environment where students who are only dominant in one language, such as Spanish or English, at the beginning of the year work to become proficient in both languages. Children learn with and from each other especially when there is an ideal, one-to-one ratio of speakers of each language.
It turns out this is the case in Hazleton.
According to the US Census, 37.3% of Hazleton’s population was of Latino heritage. Today, in 2017, that percentage is probably at least 45%, including many first generation immigrant families who are eager to learn. Therefore, when we look at the languages being spoken and the percentage of the population speaking them, we realize that here, in Hazleton, we have an opportunity to establish a Dual Language program in our schools that would also encourage bilingualism in the community more broadly.
Indeed, Hazleton’s streets are already bilingual spaces. There are many examples of daily exchanges in two languages between adults and children that occur at locations like the YMCA, the Hazleton Arts League, and the Hazleton One Community Center, to name a few. There are also several bilingual business enterprises: restaurants, stores, supermarkets, and auto repair shops, as well as medical and legal offices. Additionally we have popular bilingual newspapers such as “El Mensajero” and “Latino News” and bilingual radio stations such as “Radio Esperanza / Hope Radio,” which shares religious news.
Since Hazleton is already a bilingual town, it would be logical to extend this learning to the schools. The immediate benefits of such a program would be that our children would read, write, and speak in two languages. They would also share cultural experiences since Dual Language programs provide content instruction in the sciences, humanities, and arts.
The same academic content and standards would apply to both languages. The program would take place for an extended period – for example, running from Kindergarten through 3rd grade and extending to 5th grade with time. The percentage of academic instruction in each language, in general, would be 50/50, divided by either time of day, or subject matter in the older grades.
Models already exist for how to design and implement a Dual Language program. For example, experts in this area recommend engaging as many members of the community as possible to assess their goals, motivations, and exchange information in the benefits of knowing two languages. Before implementing the program, in other words, we would seek input from parents, teachers, support staff, school administrators, district administrators, and community members.
Of course, this comes with challenges. These include finding ways to make the program congruent with Common Core Standards and finding qualified Dual Language teachers and school personnel.
There are successful examples of places that instituted Dual Language programs. Longfellow Elementary School in Albuquerque, New Mexico implemented the program for 7 years. The response from that community has been pride in their children’s bilingualism and success in basic skills tests.
To conclude, our community shares similar values, one of which is providing the best possible education for our children. Why not take advantage of the community’s assets and provide instruction in two languages? Doing so would help us understand each other better and improve the educational and professional lives of our future generations. We already have all of the ingredients. Do we have the will?
Dr. Beatriz García Glick is Instructor of French and Spanish at Penn State University – Hazleton.