Five-year-old Levi Adkisson had never been exposed to Spanish before this school year. But only a few weeks in, he’s following directions and reading in the language. He’s one of the native English-speaking students in Lilia Abuerne’s Spanish classroom in the new dual language program at Tice Elementary school in Lee County.
The program began this fall more than 50 years after the first school in Florida launched a dual language program. Two classes of kindergartners at Tice Elementary are learning in Spanish half the day and the other half in English. Some of the kids are native Spanish-speakers and some are native English-speakers. By the end of 5th grade, the goal is for all of them to be bilingual and biliterate.
The school is 94 percent minority; 88 percent Hispanic. Nearly every child gets free and reduced lunch. It’s truly a neighborhood school. There are only 8 busses needed because mothers walk their children to and fro, toddlers in tow. So it made sense for Tice Elementary to adopt the dual language program.
Levi’s parents signed a contract promising to keep him in the program through fifth grade. His mother Becky Adkisson teaches second grade at the school so she said knows how to reinforce his education.
“I’ve noticed he’ll get in the car and he’ll try and sing some of the Spanish songs that he learned in class and he’ll count to me and I ask him every day when he gets in the car what’s a new word that you learned today in Spanish?” said Adkisson.
Spanish classroom teacher Abuerne graduated from Florida Gulf Coast University last spring. She comes from a Cuban-American family and grew up speaking Spanish at home. She said her biggest challenge is not speaking English in her classroom.
“There’s a separation of language so in the Spanish class there’s only Spanish speaking and in the English only English. And what I found for me since I’m able to switch in both I have to make sure even if I see a student not understanding I have to make them understand in Spanish without switching,” said Abuerne.
Just across the hall, Laurie Toncray reads with the other group of 18 kindergartners as she teaches her class in English.
Toncray asks, “How are we reading in here? What word are we going to stretch?” She asks the children to put their hands in front of them and they stretch out the letters of the word ant one by one.
Toncray has been teaching kindergarten at Tice elementary for 33 years. She also went to school here herself. She’s seen the school change demographics. So she understands the need for this new school within the school.
“Of course I’ve never been able to have that luxury of encouraging children to speak Spanish in the classroom,” said Toncray. “In other years it’s always been oh we need to speak English but now we can embrace and celebrate that you know two languages. So to me that’s really exciting,” she said.
In the afternoon, the groups will switch teachers and languages.
Five-year-old native Spanish speaker Itzel Lugo is a star pupil in Toncray’s class.
“I was working on this and it says ‘I see crayons. I see scissors’,” said Lugo.
She’s already finished her project for the day and is now teaching fellow student Jamaria how to do it. Peer tutoring, pairing the kids with a native speaker of the other language, is a key part of the program.
Itzel’s family came from Mexico a decade ago. They only speak Spanish at home. Then Itzel learned English, and stopped communicating with her parents. Her mom, Hermila Hernandez told an interpreter that the dual language program came along at a critical time for her family.
“She used to speak a little Spanish, then my oldest daughter, with her bad Spanish, will interpret for me and that bothered me and I decided to have her on both languages. Now she speaks better the Spanish. Sometimes she will correct her older sister in Spanish. I see the results that she is learning to speak more and write,” said Hernandez.
Hernandez said she wants Itzel and her other two children to be fluently bilingual. She said she, too, is learning English. And she can do that right at Tice Elementary where the local literacy council meets.
Assistant Principal Ronda Amaya said it was like a dream come true to become an administrator at Tice when it started the dual language program this fall. She began her career in dual language in South America and has a passion for its benefits.
“If you are a native Spanish speaker as is the case with many of our students that’s a strength and a richness that you have that once you begin learning the structure of English and the vocabulary words of English you can transfer over with much more ease,” said Amaya. “So the stronger they build the native language the stronger their English language becomes because of that transfer factor.”
Amaya noted some people pay big bucks to enrich their child’s learning experience through immersion in another language.
In fact, research has shown that children who are fluent in two languages are better at problem solving, are more creative and more tolerant toward others. Dr. Arnhilda Badia, a consultant to Florida school districts who creates dual language programs, said these students have to work twice as hard but get twice the results.
“They are going to get more cognitive awareness and have a better understanding of their own language by being exposed to two languages,” said Badia.
She said a study of students who went to the original Miami-Dade dual language school which began in 1963 showed more than 60 percent went on to college. And Badia said current studies are just as promising.
“Let me give you an example of Polk County -- 100 percent of the kids who were in the dual language program passed FCAT both language arts and science and math,” she said.
But not everyone is convinced. English advocates like Mauro Mujica, chairman and CEO of US English, which aims to keep English as the official language of the US government, said dual language programs may not work fast enough for the Spanish-speaking kids. He said he believes in total immersion.
“You know they may not be equally prepared as students that had all their classes in the language that they need to succeed in this country, which is English. We’re not against it really. It’s an interesting experiment. We’re going to keep an eye on it.” said Mujica.
Mujica, who speaks Spanish at home with his family said the organization, is all for speaking other languages. Tice Elementary’s Spanish teacher Lilia Abuerne said her ability to speak two languages was key to her career and it will likely be that way for her students.
“They have additional opportunities. Just like I’m bilingual I had the opportunity to have this job. If I wouldn’t have spoken Spanish I wouldn’t be here right now. So I feel it opens more doors for them,” she said.
The National Association for Bilingual Education reports about 2,000 dual language programs across the country, a growing number now teaching Chinese, Haitian Creole and French.