Schools ... with Superpowers: Dual Immersion Education Isn't Just about Learning Another Language, It's about Putting All Students on the Same Playing Field

By Winters, Michael Sean | U.S. Catholic, March 2017 | Go to article overview

Schools ... with Superpowers: Dual Immersion Education Isn't Just about Learning Another Language, It's about Putting All Students on the Same Playing Field


Winters, Michael Sean, U.S. Catholic


"How many 10's are in that number?" Grace Bogosian asks her class of second graders at Sacred Heart School in Washington, D.C. The children are gathered around her on a carpet that has a drawing of a milk carton with the words milk and la leche next to the drawing and another drawing of a shoe with the words shoe and el zapato. They take turns rolling a big die twice and writing down the numbers together so that a five and a four become 54.

On the wall of the classroom, there is the text of the Hail Mary on one wall and class rules on another. There is a bulletin board with a "tree of understanding" that features thoughts the children have written down. There is an alphabet above a blackboard.

The classroom's windows look out on one of Washington's most economically mixed neighborhoods, where it is not uncommon to see expensive, newly remodeled houses just down the block from a run-down bodega.

Across the hall, Senora Fuentes is teaching math to first graders. The room is remarkably similar to Ms. Bogosian's. The Hail Mary is on the wall, but here it is in Spanish. There is a list of reglas de la clase on another wall and un arbol de pensamientos on the bulletin board. There, the children have written down their answers to the question "Que me motiva a aprender?" (What motivates me to learn?) on Post-its: "A leer muchos libros" (to read many books) and "Yo quiero ser una profesora y tener much as responsabilidad" (I want to be a teacher and have a lot of responsibility). The alphabet above the blackboard includes the letters Ch, LI, and Rr from the Spanish alphabet.

The students go back and forth between the two classrooms and the two languages throughout the course of the day. In Bogosian's room, they speak only in English. In Fuentes' room, they speak only in Spanish. Among each other, they sometimes speak in both. "Yo veo (I see) some people and some artwork," one little boy in pre-K says.

Upstairs, in middle school, the fluency and facility of the students in both languages is more evident. In Mr. Parada's seventh grade social studies class, the students huddle over their laptops, writing a short essay about the Dolores Huerta biography they've just read. Some of the children are Hispanic, some are white, one is from Eritrea, some are mixed race. What they all have in common is that whatever subject they are learning in the classroom, they are also learning to get comfortable in a language other than their native one.

These students learn in both Spanish and English because Sacred Heart School is part of the Two-Way Immersion Network for Catholic Schools (TWINCS), a program created by Boston College in 2012. Unlike a traditional bilingual program, in which everyone who does not speak English is told they need to learn English, dual immersion puts everyone on the same plane because everyone is learning a language. The us-vs.-them dynamic evaporates.

"You have to communicate in lots of ways," says school principal Elise Heil. "Most students are from El Salvador, but there are now also students from Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico. We have a few Vietnamese students, too, and Haitian and Ethiopian. Now, it's not that this person needs to learn Spanish and that person needs to learn English. It's that we all need to be learning language and communicating. We have students who speak Vietnamese at home and English and Spanish at school. It blows your mind."

Breaking down cultural boundaries

Patricia Weitzel-O'Neill, the executive director of the Barbara and Patrick Roche Center for Catholic Education at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College, works to help Catholic schools thrive in the 21st century. In the United States, that means finding ways to engage Latino Catholics, who already constitute 61 percent of Catholics under the age of 18. "Latinos are 60 percent of the 14.6 million school-age Catholics. But only 4 percent of these children are enrolled in Catholic schools," she says. …

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