WESLACO, RGV – Outdated bilingual education models have been replaced at Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD with dual language or dual immersion programs, attendees at RGV’s Equal Voice Network Mesa Comunitaria heard.

The aim of the programs is to develop college ready bi-literacy, Olivia Martinez, dual language director for PSJA ISD, said.

“With ever larger cohorts of bi-literate students moving up through the system, PSJA is on a course to become a national leader in producing college ready, academically bi-literate high school graduates.”

Martinez was a panelist at the Mesa Comunitaria, which was held at South Texas College in Weslaco on Saturday.

Elvia Alcala

Elvia Alcala, an RGV Equal Voice Network member from Brownsville, told the Rio Grande Guardian that PSJA’s dual language model was the “gold standard” in the Rio Grande Valley.

“My children have the opportunity to learn so much more because the school teaches bilingual. They will have a lot more job opportunities,” Alcala said.

“But, one of the focuses of today’s Mesa Comunitaria was dual versus bilingual. The standards are different. The standards are not equal. Dual requires them to learn as much in Spanish as they do in English, both reading and writing. That is the best way to go. PSJA is the best, we would like other schools to do what PSJA does. It is the best model in the Valley.”

Alcala’s added that her first language is Spanish and she is proud her children haven been raised to know their roots and culture. ‘They can be proud of that. When they go for a job, the first question is do you know Spanish. My children can say with pride that they do,” she said.

Christina Patiño Houle, network weaver for RGV Equal Voice Network, said she has picked up a lot of anecdotal evidence about how schools that focus on English and not also Spanish are doing a disservice to students.

“The students can’t talk as well in Spanish in their home because their thought process is in English. They learn English in school and they do not want to translate back in Spanish to their parents any more. As a consequence, parents and grandparents lose out. As the children get older, English becomes the cultural way of experiencing the region, which is sad.”

Olivia Martinez

After appearing on a panel discussion about dual language and bilingual education, PSJA’s Martinez gave an in-depth interview to the Rio Grande Guardian.

“Every day, our students receive instruction in English and Spanish. If the student stays in the program with us after elementary, we have it in middle school and in high school, so they continue that native language support, which is Spanish, or that second language support, which is English,” Martinez said.

“For students who are English proficient, they continue to receive Spanish. We know that in those English proficient homes, there really isn’t any Spanish being spoken or they don’t watch media in Spanish either. So, they get to maintain that Spanish.”

PSJA is winning national and international accolades for its dual language programs, Martinez said, noting that educators from regions as diverse as Mexico and Alaska pay visits to see what PSJA is doing right.

Asked how it all started, Martinez said:

“In 2008, our superintendent, Dr. Daniel King came into our district and at that time we only had about five elementariness participating in the dual language program. He noticed the scores of those campuses were doing better, when compared to the other ones, who were late exit. He said, this is good for all kids, it should be good across the district. This is when he started to implement the program district-wide, in 2008-2009.”

Martinez paid tribute to Dr. King.

“He has been such a supporter of our program and I think that has really skyrocketed our dual language program and really put us on the map. Not only in Texas but nationwide,” Martinez said.

“At the start, he had a lot of meetings with our principals, because, for whatever reason, we did have principals that opposed dual language at the time. He had his presentations and said, this is what we are going to do. He pretty much made it a mandate and it has been there for 11 years.”

The term “Early Exit” means students learn a small amount in their primary language thru first and second grade and then they try to exit them from the program into all English instruction, Martinez explained.

The term “Late Exit” is also called “Maintenance Bilingual Programs.” According to Study.com, it provides a balanced combination of academic instruction in a student’s first language and English. “English language learners’ first language serves as the foundation for development of English language skills and later, academic knowledge in both languages. The ultimate goal is transition to mainstream classrooms where students continue their education with native English speakers. The program lasts six to seven years, from kindergarten to sixth or seventh grade.”

PSJA ISD has about 32,000 students. Of these, about 15,000-plus are currently participating in the school district’s dual language program. 

“That’s almost half. We do not have a bilingual program anymore. The State of Texas recognizes four bilingual programs, the early exit, the late exit, the one way dual and the two way dual. We implement the one way dual and the two way dual. So, our students coming in who are identified as English-learners, this is the bilingual program, we do not have any other one. So, our dual language is our program, pre-K thru 12th grade,” Martinez said.

The success of PSJA’s dual language program has meant parents living outside Pharr, San Juan or Alamo have been asking if their children can attend.

“We do have parents who come into our district because they hear that we have the dual language program, in such an extensive way. They come in and ask for special permission to have their students participate in our program. It is an attraction to our English-proficient students to learn that second language,” Martinez said.

Asked how students from homes that speak almost exclusively Spanish do with the dual language program, Martinez said:

“Most of the students from the cohorts we have graduated… we have already graduated ten cohorts… the majority of those students are Spanish-dominant, they were Spanish speakers from the beginning. The ones we have kept in touch with, they have already graduated as teachers, we have some working with our district. The students that graduated through the dual language program are now teachers, we have got some at the high school level, the middle school level, they do tend to go further with their education because of that confidence of being bilingual, the confidence of being bi-literate gives them.”

Martinez said that in middle school students take the AP language and cultures exam, and they get college-credit as early as 8th grade. 

“That confidence is boosted and so the students say, if I did it in middle school, I can do it in high school. So, they continue their education. Most of them, I would say, 95 to 97 percent of our students go to college, have a degree and are also pursuing their masters degree. So, it is a very, very, good program, not only for the now but it is long term. And those affects long term are excellent for our students.”

The result, Martinez said is that PSJA is producing students that are 100 percent bi-literate. 

“What I tell my students at every banquet is, you can go away to college, you can go away and get their education, but come back and serve your community. Because we do want to see them back, so they can serve our community. The more educated our community is, the stronger we are. So, the fact that we are producing this type of student is not only helping our community but, wherever they go, whether they stay in Texas or go to another state, it is going to help them and it is going to make that particular place better.”

Asked if any other Valley school districts are following the PSJA model, Martinez said:

“La Joya is taking dual language into middle school. We are very excited about that. McAllen is also going into middle school, they have their sixth graders in a dual language program. We have Harlingen going into middle school, also. So, we do have a few districts here in the Valley that are going this way because they see the benefits.”

Asked about the importance and relevance of Equal Voice Network Mesa Comunitaria, Martinez said:

“I think events like this… we as administrators should participate. We want to know what the concerns of the parents are. We want to empower the parents to go talk to the districts. We want superintendents, board members, teachers to attend so they can replicate these kinds of programs in their areas.”

Martinez added that dual language is making an incredible impact.

“With this program, we don’t have students who had early exit and they don’t know any Spanish. We really would love it if every district had this type of program so all off our students in the Valley were educated the same way.”

Indeed, PSJA is also blazing the trail in the Valley when if comes to teaching students Mandarin Chinese.

“This is the second year that we have Mandarin Chinese in our district. We have it in two elementary, three middle and one high school. Those students are flourishing in a third language. They are doing amazing. We thought they may have a little bit of trouble because it is Mandarin Chinese but they are already having conversations, they are already writing those Chinese characters. They are just doing great,” Martinez said.