In Dayton, A Dual Language Program Helps Students With Limited English
About a quarter of the students who attend Ruskin Elementary School on the east side of Dayton’s don’t speak English as their first language. Of the 11 different languages spoken at the school, Spanish is the most prevalent—and it was the Latino students who inspired the staff at Ruskin to take a different approach to teaching. The school is in its third year of a successful dual language program.
On a recent morning, about 20 kids gathered on the carpet in one corner of EllyMallen’s kindergarten class. They practiced their months and numbers in Spanish while putting their hands on their shoulders and raising them high up into the air. Some kids started bouncing around, unable to control their excitement while shouting words in Spanish.
The signs and posters in the halls at Ruskin Elementary are in both English and Spanish and conversation flows between the two languages. All kindergarten and first grade classes are half in Spanish, half in English, and teachers use what are called “bridge lessons” to move from one language to the other.
Inside the other kindergarten class, the kids are working on a math problem. They need to figure out what they need to add to eight in order to get 14.
“Sometimes around puberty they reach this time in their teens where it’s harder to learn a second language," says their teacher, Elizabeth Toomey. She grew up in Texas along the Mexico border and spoke English and Spanish every day. She says mingling the languages together with kids at this age is best. "Even pronunciation-wise, I’m really amazed. It’s like they mimic these sounds and they’re picking up these words.”
Toomey has the students use more than just their brains during lessons.
“Whenever I teach a verb, an action, in Spanish, I try to connect it with a visual. And also, aside from the visual, I also try to connect it with an action,” Toomey says.
Bilingual teachers are rare in Dayton Public Schools even as the immigrant population rises.
“Sometimes, it’s like we’re the little diamond in the rough,” principal Judith Spurlock says.
Ruskin is the only school in DPS that has a dual-language program.
“Each classroom has some Spanish books in them, but we’re hoping to increase that for next year,” Spurlock says.
And they want to teach Social Studies in Spanish, but it hasn’t been easy finding the books.
“Sometimes it’s hard to find publishers that have curriculum that matches our state standards in Spanish,” she says.
Spurlock says the program’s been especially helpful for kids who don’t speak English and may have a hard enough time getting through class, let alone state testing. She says students are quickly improving. According to one study, dual language programs help close the achievement gap between English learners and native speakers. Research also points to a social benefit for kids who are learning English.
But the principal says the bilingual environment isn’t just helping the students: the parents get something out of it, too.
“They know that they can communicate, primarily, with their child’s teacher. We don’t have to ask for an interpreter,” Spurlock says. “And that makes a world of difference.”
The school has parenting classes on the weekends, and family game nights every month—a lot of the families are really involved.
“They love to walk their children to school. We have mothers, and grandmothers and fathers and grandfathers walk their children to school. Because it is that community,” Spurlock says.
The school is expanding its bilingual classes into the second grade next year.
Graduating Latino is WYSO's series on education for Latinos in the Miami Valley, produced in partnership with Think TV. It's part of the public media initiative American Graduate, which is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.