Learning in Dos Idiomas

When it comes to bilingual education, many people feel it is all one and the same. That is, as long as there are students, a teacher and two languages in the same classroom, then it must be a bilingual program, right? Wrong.

There are different types of programs: Transitional bilingual education allows native Spanish speakers to progress into an all-English classroom, while English as a Second Language is taught all in English. And then there is the dual-language approach.

In a dual-language program, both native Spanish-speaking students and non-Spanish speakers receive instruction in both English and Spanish in the same classroom. Dual-language learning emphasizes the idea that English and Spanish are equal languages and that there is not a movement from a lesser language to a better language, but that both are beneficial to learning.

Nohemi Ruiz, a kindergarten teacher at St. Procopius Elementary in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood and a Mexican native, says her school’s goal is to protect the native language. In her class, the children learn in Spanish 90 percent of the day in classes such as language arts, math, science and social studies, eventually progressing to a 50/50 model in third grade.

“English is very common outside of school,” Ruiz says in Spanish. “That’s why [Spanish] starts so strongly [in kindergarten] so that when they get to third grade, the transition is easier.”

The goal of the dual-language program is to graduate completely bilingual and bicultural students, says Adam Dufault, principal at St. Procopius. “We want them to read, write and speak Spanish and English well,” he says.

The dual-language approach is not to teach every subject in both languages. “That defeats the purpose of dual-language education,” says Karen Beeman, an education specialist at the Illinois Resource Center in Arlington Heights. It is a common misconception that this is a necessity.

For schools, this model is cheaper than other approaches because, instead of two separate teachers per subject, there is only one, she says.

When St. Procopius was on the verge of closing, the Jesuits increased enrollment by keeping the culture of the predominantly Mexican population as part of the curriculum. The administration of St. Procopius implemented the dual-language program in 1995 and established Cristo Rey Jesuit High School as a dual-language school. These two institutions are part of the “Pilsen Project,” whose ultimate goal is to use the strength of having a second language to keep Latinos on the path to educational success.

When the program was implemented at St. Procopius some 100 children were pulled out of the school. Beeman, who was principal at the time, says the parents of the children who were second- and third-generation Latinos didn’t understand the importance of being bilingual and saw a stigma associated with speaking Spanish. They felt that their children would be regressing in their ability to learn. But in spite of the backlash, 200 students were enrolled at St. Procopius within the next year.

Chicago Public Schools opened the Inter American Magnet School 30 years ago on Chicago’s North Side as a dual-language school. Acting Principal Susan Kilbain states that the school’s program benefits all students. In a school of 650 students, about half of the students do not speak Spanish before entering the program. All teachers are bilingual and, unlike St. Procopius, it does not reach the 50/50 point until seventh and eighth grade. “It’s a very successful program,” Kilbain says. “It’s a schoolwide commitment.”

Between kindergarten and sixth grade, students are taught what is called the curriculum of the Americas. Students in each grade level focus on a particular culture – such as the Inca, Maya or Aztec – and present their work at the end of the school year. Once they reach junior high, they integrate their learning with world culture and history. “There’s a lot of value given to culture and language,” explains Kilbain, who has worked in the district for 17 years. “This is the most successful program that I’ve been a part of.”


Teachers have to typically convince parents of the benefits of learning in both languages by showing them research, says Beeman, who was born and raised in Mexico City. “We need to elevate the status of Spanish,” she says. “[Having a] dual-language program [means] you have to take on that responsibility because there are battles that you may have to fight and if you don’t fight them, your program will fail.”

Many second- and third-generation Latinos still feel that Spanish could hinder their children rather than help them, and tend to discourage learning in Spanish as a bad thing, says Beeman, although others are starting to see the benefits. Either way, teachers and administration must support the program in order to make it succeed.

Arlin Alicea and Vasilika Rraklli, second-grade bilingual teachers at Riley Elementary in Northlake, attended an Illinois Resource Center workshop on dual language implementation because their school wants to produce better test scores. They say their school now uses the transitional bilingual program.

With about 500 students, Riley’s population is approximately 95 percent Latino. Teachers there are expected to help students make the language transition in one year, a process that Beeman says is supposed to take five to seven years regardless of the program.

State proficiency standards for English-language learners outline the need for native Spanish speakers to be able to fully grasp content and concepts from the time they begin school. Upon enrollment, students are given a language questionnaire to be filled out by their parents. If they qualify for bilingual education, they are then given an English proficiency test to determine whether they belong in a bilingual program.

In Chicago Public Schools, transitional bilingual programming is only mandatory until the third grade, after which students are expected to function in an English-only curriculum. If this does not happen, district policy requires students to continue in a transitional bilingual classroom until they can perform successfully in an English-only classroom. This is the case at Tarkington Elementary on Chicago’s Southwest Side.

Margaret Kania, assistant principal and bilingual education teacher at Tarkington, says that in her school’s program there is an emphasis on English although many parents want to maintain both languages. “I wouldn’t mind doing [dual-language programming], but we don’t have it,” she says. “We want to make students more comfortable in English because that’s the language that’s going to move them forward.”


Marcelo Yunda teaches seventh- and eighth-graders at St. Procopius. The Ecuadorian native has been at the school for 12 years and says that fully bilingual students develop critical thinking skills and rise to a higher level.

“Kids learning in English-only [classrooms] are stunted in their abilities,” he says in Spanish. “[The dual-language students] come out with the advantage of keeping their language and their roots.”

The dual-language model has been spreading across Illinois, especially in suburbs like Evanston and Schaumburg. Not only do Latino parents want their kids to study both languages, but non-Latino parents want their students to be bilingual as well. “Everyone wants to be bilingual,” says Beeman. “It elevates the status of the language.”

Originally published by Cafe Media, LLC.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s