'European-Style' School Is Model of Bilingual Teaching

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Washington--When the kindergartners at Oyster Elementary School held their Thanksgiving party last fall, it was much like any other--with Indians in headbands and feathers, Pilgrims in long aprons and typing-paper caps, and a low table loaded with party food served up by the Pilgrims' and the Indians' mothers.

But instead of turkey and pumpkin pie, the children feasted on enchiladas and paella. And instead of a skit about Squanto, the Oyster students entertained their parents with the recitation of a complicated poem in Spanish about a gingerbread man's adventures.

Like almost everything that happens at Oyster School, the kindergartners' party was an exercise in Pan-Americanism, an event in which children and adults spoke Spanish, English, and a casual hybrid of the two.

The Oyster School is the District of Columbia's only bilingual public school and one of the few in the nation that have dual-language instruction for all students. Last month, participants in the National Association for Bilingual Education's convention toured the school and learned how it works.

Those who know it best contend that the Oyster School works very well. Its pupils consistently score above the norms for their grade level in tests, it has a waiting list of more than 300 children from all over the city, it has managed to avoid district-wide budget cuts, and it has become the district's showpiece school for foreign and domestic dignitaries to visit.

Classes at Oyster are conducted in English and Spanish in an effort to make students, as one teacher puts it, "linguistically and culturally literate in both languages." Each of Oyster's classrooms, from kindergarten through the 6th grade, is taught by two teachers--one English-speaking and one Spanish-speaking. Students learn to respond in either language, depending on which teacher is at the blackboard.

This teaching format may not be characterized as either "Spanish enrichment" or English-as-a-second-language, Oyster's proponents are quick to point out. "This is the closest thing there is to a well-developed European bilingual school," says Marcello Fernandez, director of the District of Columbia school system's bilingual division.

The success of Oyster's 10-year-old program is a reflection of--and, officials say, the result of--the varied international community that surrounds it. The Adams-Morgan neighborhood in Northwest Washington, once a low-income black section, has, in the past decade, accommodated a heavy influx of Central and South American immigrants. The area now has the feel of Miami's Little Havana, with a Spanish movie theater, a dozen Latin American restaurants, and corner grocery stores where frijoles and hot pepper sauce are shelved next to American cheese and oatmeal.

Oyster's student body, which is heavily Latin, reflects that ethnic integration. Nearly 200 of the school's 335 students are of Hispanic origin. Many of them are the children of recent refugees from embattled El Salvador. The remaining third are the children of the neighborhood's growing white middle class or the offspring of the Indo-Chinese, African, and European families that have been moving into the area recently.

Many children live in homes where more than one language is spoken, and such households are models for Oyster's approach to language instruction. It is a total-immersion technique that Mr. Fernandez laughingly refers to as "Mama's methodology."

"We start out in pre-kindergarten by talking to the children and teaching them English or Spanish just the way your mama taught you to talk," he says. "You know, she said 'come here, sit down, see the kitty?' Later, we switch to more sophisticated stuff."

An economist by training, Mr. Fernandez likes to avoid the current pedagogic dispute over the best way to teach languages, and he dismisses the recent shifts in federal bilingual-education policy as "political."

Bilingual education, he and others agree, has become something of a political football, tossed between legislators and educators who believe it is the role of schools to foster cultural pluralism, and those who think schools should simply assimilate foreign-speaking students as quickly as possible.

While the professional jury is still out on the merits of bilingual education, public response to Oyster School has been enthusiastic, says Mr. Fernandez. Although technically a neighborhood school, Oyster draws students from all over the school district, and more than 300 parents have signed a waiting list to enroll their children. Parents are encouraged to visit the school, to sit in on classes, and to assess the program themselves.

In contrast to many other bilingual programs around the country, Oyster gives "equal weight" to learning both English and Spanish well, noted Paquita Biasoechea, past chairman of the school's parents' association. This means that English-speaking students must develop the same fluency in Spanish that Hispanic students develop in English.

Beginning in the 1st grade, for example, social studies is taught only in English, while science is taught only in Spanish, according to Elsa Aldao, a 2nd-grade teacher at Oyster. Reading, however, is taught separately, by ethnic group, and mathematics is taught in both languages.

Perhaps because mathematical concepts can be demonstrated without words, Oyster students often express a preference for the subject. "I can communicate easily with a child who doesn't speak English through mathematics," says Ruth Woolsey, a mathematics teacher who is a 17-year veteran of the public-school system. Though she is one of the few staff members who speaks only one language ("I'm embarrassed to have the children hear my Spanish"), Ms. Woolsey says she is very enthusiastic about the bilingual program.

Her feelings are echoed by Isabel Gomez, a 5th-grade teacher who describes herself as a "ninth generation" Mexican American. Like many of Oyster's teachers, Ms. Gomez holds a master's degree in bilingual education.

"Oyster has a totally different approach to bilingual instruction," she says. "In Texas, where I taught before moving here, Spanish was part of the curriculum, but it was the exception instead of the rule.''

One key to Oyster's success, Ms. Aldao suggests, is that all 10 Spanish teachers come from Central or South America and thus are native speakers of the language. Another may be that there has been almost no turnover among the Spanish-speaking staff since the school opened 10 years ago.

For Hispanic parents whose children are exposed to English outside their homes and through television and radio, Oyster's dual curriculum provides welcome reinforcement of Spanish spoken at home. "We didn't want our children to forget their heritage," says Horacio Artiga, one of 10 Hispanic members of the school's 20-person parents' council. "When we go back to El Salvador to visit now and then, our relatives are always happy to see that the children haven't forgotten how to speak to them."

Some parents privately admit, however, to worries that their children's English suf-fers because they must learn to read and write simultaneously in two languages. But most seem to feel that being fluent in two languages is worth the risk.

Much of the credit for Oyster's success is given to Frank Miele, its principal for the past decade.

Mr. Miele punctuates his speech with emphatic and sweeping gestures. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of classical music and a penchant for broadcasting his favorite pieces over the school's public-address system. "I'm suited to a jumpy kind of school like this," he says.

An interview with him prompts a lecture on the superficiality of journalism, the superiority of a strict upbringing, and American attitudes toward children.

'We Hate Kids'

"We hate kids," Mr. Miele fumes. "Just look at junior-high school where we herd them together, crowd them in, have that godawful schedule. Just look at how much money we spend in America on the defense budget, compared to what we spend for education. We hate children because they are not productive, because they drain our resources."

The principal's vigorous advocacy of public schools and his 10-year tenure at Oyster have made him a skillful "in-fighter" in the city's school bureaucracy, those who know the school say. "He has managed to get special resources for the school since Oyster started," says one parent.

Mr. Miele, in turn, credits the parents' council with support beyond that of a typical pta Last year, the council raised $12,000 to hire a part-time music teacher and to order Spanish-language textbooks from Venezuela and Mexico. Such financial assistance is welcome, Mr. Miele says, although he maintains that Oyster's budget has not been unduly affected by the city's recent budget-cutting measures. The school receives no federal support.

The way to avoid budget cutting, according to Brooks Jackson, the chairman of the parents' associ-ation, is to make your school so good that politicians feel proud of it and use it as a showpiece.

"People don't mind spending a little extra, provided the spending produces something they can be proud of," he suggests.

A Record of Excellence

At the Bilingual Education Association seminar, called "The History and Politics of the Oyster Bilingual School," Mr. Jackson, a writer for The Wall Street Journal, traced how the Oyster School built a record of excellence. He pointed out, however, that it was not the quality of its program alone that kept local budget cutters at bay. The other essential factor in the Oyster School's success, he said, has been the clout its parents have developed at city hall.

At present, said Mr. Jackson, one parent sits on the City Council and is a member of its education committee.

Before that, he was a member of the city's board of education. And Oyster parents are lobbying to add another of their group to the board. Parents are so concerned about the quality of their school that they often interview candidates for new staff positions in their homes, Mr. Jackson said.

"A high-quality, multicultural, bilingual school that works is something that parents will fight for, whether they are English-speaking or Spanish-speaking, rich or poor," concluded Mr. Jackson. "And there's no reason why Oyster can't be duplicated in other cities."

'This School is Unique'

But Mr. Fernandez is doubtful about the possibility of creating more Oyster schools. "This school is unique," he says. "Educators have come here from Israel, from Europe, from all over the United States to check it out. I don't believe it can be replicated. Not exactly. Without the kind of integrated neighborhood it's in, and without the solid local funding, it will never work."

"Fortunately," he adds, "Oyster school has survived the experimental stage. It has been around for more than 10 years and it will probably be here as long as there is a need for bilingual education."

Hope Aldrich contributed to this report.

Vol. 02, Issue 23

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