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Preschools for L.E.P. Children: Se Habla Espanol

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Winters, Calif.--Jose Palomarez, the 3-year-old son of Mexican migrant workers, reaches into a box and pulls out tiny toy replicas of objects from his everyday life.

Showing them to his teacher, he recites their names:

"Canasta." A basket.

"Campana." A bell.

Although Jose lives here in the Sacramento Valley, hundreds of miles north of the Mexican border, his teacher nonetheless understands his Spanish and praises his answers in the same tongue.

Jose is enrolled at the Winters Child Development Center, a state-funded Montessori preschool and kindergarten, and he is not asked to speak English here.

The Winters center is one of 14 Spanish-language early-childhood programs operated in California by the Foundation Center for Phenomenological Research, a nonprofit community organization based in nearby Sacramento.

If the National Association for Bilingual Education had its way, preschools across the country would use a similar approach with other language-minority children.

Exposure to English in preschool, nabe asserts in a recent study, leads such children to substitute English for their primary language at home and thus disrupt family relationships. (See related story, this page.)

So far, however, programs like the Winters school are extremely rare in the United States, and preschools are under countervailing pressures to teach language-minority children English.

"At least in California, we see the push for English-only programs increasing," said Antonia M. Lopez, director of education and staff development at the Foundation Center. "It is because people are getting desperate, and they want their children to do better in school."

Other than the Foundation Center's programs, bilingual-education experts and nabe officials were able to name only a handful of non-English preschools in California and East Coast cities, although they speculated that Hispanic community and church groups may have opened more.

The Head Start Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which this year is expected to serve 600,000 children, about 22 percent of whom are Hispanic, has prescribed that its locally designed programs meet the needs of language minorities.

But a statement of multicultural principles for Head Start programs written by Head Start Bureau Commissioner Wade F. Horn and slated for distribution to the agency's grantees provides that language-minority children also be introduced to English.

"Effective programs for children with limited English speaking ability require continued development of the primary language while the acquisition of English is facilitated," reads one of the governing principles. The commissioner recommended beginning acquisition of English ''by a natural approach rather than by formal instruction."

Don Bolce, director of government affairs for the National Head Start Association, a membership association representing the 1,900 Head Start programs, said "we frequently don't have a classroom that is of a single culture or even a single language."

All of the 44 children at the Winters center, funded by the child-development division of the California Department of Education, are from families of Mexican descent that live in surrounding public housing. Their parents earn about $7,000 a year for a family of four by picking nuts and fruits in nearby orchards.

The earthy simplicity of the children's lives contrasts sharply with the elegance of their lunch setting, where the children light candles and eat on china to help them learn life skills.

Ms. Lopez of the Foundation Center acknowledged that the children at the center are at a prime age to learn English, but said forgoing such an opportunity is small price to pay for the Spanish communication skills, self-confidence, and strong self-image that the children will have.

"Here, the whole day is in Spanish," said Ms. Lopez, who asserted that the center's previous attempts to teach in English left the children feeling helpless and passive, while bilingual instruction seemed stilted and bored them.

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