MCALLEN, RGV – Many McAllen parents are asking if their children can be transferred to Blanca E. Sanchez Elementary and the reason is the school’s English-Spanish dual-language program.
Cynthia Rodriguez, principal at Sanchez, and Hiram Moya, a parent, shared their experiences of the program in an in-depth interview with the Rio Grande Guardian. The program trains students to read, write and speak in English and Spanish.
“We grew 50 to 60 students due to the dual-language program,” Rodriguez said. “We were at 440 students and now we are now at 500. A lot of it is due to dual-language, and because parents have heard about our success.”
Dr. Silvia Ibarra, McAllen ISD assistant superintendent for instruction, confirmed that Sanchez and Andrew Jackson, another McAllen elementary school that specializes in a dual-language program, said the two schools had some of the highest STAAR scores in the district.
Asked what she put the success down to, Rodriguez said: “Hard work and dedication. And, teachers that are passionate. You have to believe in it. That is why it is working.”
Moya, an assistant professor in manufacturing and industrial engineering at UT-Rio Grande Valley, has two children at Sanchez Elementary. One is in 5th grade and the other in 1st grade.
“The program is going really well. One of the reasons we moved our children to Sanchez Elementary is that the dual-language program goes from Pre-K to 5th grade. The school just had its first cohort graduate from the dual-language program. They are moving on to middle school as a dual-language cohort.”
Gómez and Gómez
Asked how the dual-language program works, Rodriguez said:
“We start in Pre-K and go all the way to 5th Grade. We follow the Gómez and Gómez model. If a child speaks Spanish, then their reading is in Spanish until they get to second grade. If their first language is English, they get taught English reading. However, science and social studies are in Spanish. Math is in English, every day. Monday is all Spanish, Tuesday is all English, Wednesday is all Spanish, Thursday is all English, and Friday is Spanish. We also partner the students. If they are English speakers only, we partner them with a bilingual partner, someone who knows Spanish. So, they help each other as opposed to asking the teacher, they help each other. That is how they learn both languages. Once they get to second grade we have them reading in Spanish one week and reading in English the next week.”
The Gómez & Gómez Dual-Language Enrichment Model was originally developed in 1995 and first implemented in 1996 at Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD. The implementation of this model has since expanded to over 671 schools across 11 states.
Rodriguez said the whole school is excited because the first 5th Grade dual-language class has just graduated.
“We celebrated this at UTRGV. From here, the students will be moving on to Fossum Middle School where the district has initiated an initiative to continue dual-language. We are very excited for that because these children will continue learning English and Spanish at the same time. Once they graduate from Fossum, the district will name a high school campus where these students can continue in high school. Our goal is to get them with a seal of biliteracy once they graduate from high school. And, we have partnered with UTRGV. They are offering college classes in both English and Spanish. We are hoping this group will stay here in the Valley, go to UTRGV and take classes in English and Spanish.”
Until now, PSJA was the only school district in the Valley to offer a dual-language education beyond elementary school. Angie Martinez, McAllen ISD’s bilingual, ESL and foreign languages director, said the students will be graduating with a Spanish I credit for high school and will start Spanish II in sixth grade.
Asked if other elementary schools in McAllen are using the Gómez & Gómez Dual-Language Enrichment Model, Rodriguez said:
“They had offered it to everybody in McAllen and at one point, all were dual-language. For whatever reason, some opted not to continue with it. I was seeing the benefits of it for our students, so we continued. Me growing up as a first language Spanish speaker, I knew it was best for students. I read what the researchers were saying about teaching in Spanish, that it was the best. So, we never stopped. Jackson Elementary and Sanchez Elementary are the first campuses with first graduating fifth grade.”
Sanchez has been principal at Sanchez for ten years. She said she has no doubt it was the best decision she has taken in her career.
“We did not let it go and it was the best decision I made. Three weeks ago, we received preliminary scores of our fifth graders across the state of Texas and as we analyzed the data we broke it into the subgroups, regular students, the monolingual students and the dual and we are seeing that the dual-language students are scoring perfect papers. STAAR is a very rigorous test. With dual, learning two languages at the same time, that is rigorous, it is already a GT (gifted and talented) program, we are seeing they are outperforming the GT students.”
A Parent’s Perspective
Moya, a parent with two children at Sanchez Elementary, thanked Rodriguez for believing in the dual-language approach.
“This is the first time McAllen ISD has created the vision of continuing dual-language to middle grade. It has been a fantastic program. I think the kids are doing great. I am also part of the dual-language parent support committee. We want to help the teachers and the kids in any way possible, so the program becomes successful.”
Asked why dual-language is important as a concept, Moya said:
“The dual-language program has the objective of not only ensuring students are able to read, write, and speak two languages, but also that they understand the cultural differences of different parts of the world.
“These children will be able to academically perform in different languages, in this case Spanish and English, all the way, hopefully, to the university level. UTRGV aims to be the first B3 university. That is, bilingual, bicultural, bi-literate. The benefits of doing that in the Valley are enormous. Being able to speak in many languages gives you many more opportunities, a better chance of getting a higher paying job, a lot of opportunities open up for kids.”
Moya noted how, 50 years ago, Spanish was frowned upon in many Texas schools. Indeed, many Valley parents and grandparents recall being chastised or even hit by their teacher for speaking Spanish in school. Asked to comment on this, Moya said: “In the past it was frowned up and there were actually instances of people being prevented from speaking two languages. I am a native Texan from El Paso. We knew it was frowned up. Maybe the opposition to it was not as intense as in the Valley. But, we now know how beneficial it is. As native Texans we should be proud of our biculturalism and our heritage. We should be proud we can speak both languages.”
Moya said that through the PUEDE (Parents United for Excellent Dual Education) group, parents are promoting dual-language programs across the Valley. “We are trying to make sure that other districts see what is happening in McAllen, so they can emulate it. There are waiting lists for students who want to join the dual-language program.”
Dr. Mariana Alessandri, RGV PUEDE leader and UTRGV associate professor of philosophy, said the organization is working to get the program into more school districts.
“Nine districts have dual-language, so we have nine chapters for PUEDE and one for Edinburg because the parents are so fired up to get Edinburg to be dual-language,” she said.
Alessandri said her hope for the future is that every bilingual program turns into a dual-language program.
“Every kindergarten, high school and college student should appreciate the value of speaking two languages, and be proud of their heritage and their culture,” she said.
At a recent graduation ceremony, 40 fifth-graders from Sanchez Elementary and Andrew Jackson Elementary in McAllen, along with their parents and teachers. were feted for being the first cohort of dual-language program graduates. The event was hosted by UTRGV’s Center for Bilingual Studies, in partnership with PUEDE UTRGV’s B3 Institute. It was held at UTRGV’s Edinburg Campus.
“One of UTRGV’s strategic goals is to become a bilingual, bicultural and biliterate university,” said Dr. Patricia Alvarez McHatton, UTRGV’s executive vice president for Academic Affairs, Student Success and P-16 Integration. “Working with our local districts to increase dual-language programs throughout our region is one way we can bring this goal to fruition and help ensure that our students enter our university able to participate in courses delivered in Spanish or English, or in bilingual courses.”
Currently, nine school districts in the region offer dual-language programs: PSJA, McAllen, La Joya, Harlingen, Mission, Rio Grande City, Hidalgo, Donna and Laredo. PSJA currently is the only school district that goes beyond fifth grade. Dr. Joy Esquierdo, director of the UTRGV Center for Bilingual Studies, said she anticipates creating more partnerships with schools to focus on how valuable dual-language programs are.
“The university’s voice is so loud in our community. And if we say, ‘We are acknowledging these successes and celebrating them with you,’ I’m hoping it will send a very powerful message,” she said.