Bilingual services aim to help kids

ROCHESTER — Educators and state legislators are pushing for more early intervention programs and services for students learning English as the state’s population continues to grow in diversity.

And parents of students enrolled in the bilingual preschool class at James John Audubon School No. 33 say providing such services only makes sense.

Ivelisse González, whose 4-year-old son graduated from the preschool program on June 20, said that she herself has obtained certain jobs because of her ability to speak English and Spanish. So she hopes Heriberto and her younger son, Alexis, also will be bilingual, she added.

That ability "offers more opportunities for everyone to have better jobs," González said, "and not only for Hispanic children but for all students."

Rose Urzetta, a program administrator at School 33, said early intervention has a significant impact on a child’s potential for success, according to research the school has compiled in conjunction with the Children’s Institute of Rochester.

"The evidence proves children who attend preschool have higher academic achievement including higher graduation rates, lower incidents of drug abuse, fewer arrests and as a result better paying jobs," Urzetta explained.

The New York State Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force also has collected research that suggests that early enrollment in educational facilities can greatly improve the language and mathematic skills that children develop in later years, according to information provided by state Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, head of the task force.

But last year, only 40 percent of Hispanics between the ages of 3 and 5 were enrolled in early education programs, compared to 59 percent of their Caucasian counterparts, according to the task force’s research. And The National Task Force on Early Childhood Education for Hispanics also advocates for more universal pre-K programs with teachers proficient in English and Spanish, as offered by the Rochester City School District, to help boost those numbers, according to information at

"The fact is that all brain research and science shows that children who are bilingual are more flexible cognitively," said Luis O. Reyes, director of education for the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York City. "People live longer and avoid Alzheimer’s more if they are bilingual because of that cognitive flexibility and moving between two languages helps the brain to develop brain cells. … But when you have people saying, ‘You’re in America so learn English,’ they don’t see the value of putting taxpayer money into learning other languages and are doing a school system and children a disservice."

Maintaining both languages as well as being bicultural are valuable assets, which is why the state task force is seeking more bilingual programs for students — particularly immigrants — at all grade levels, from preschool to high school, Ortiz stated. Children who receive language support at an early age have fewer special-education placements and behavorial issues because they don’t enter kindergarten or first grade at a disadvantage, Reyes added.

Mileny López said that she saw a transformation in her son, Alenniel Agosto, after he spent one year in Leticia Ontiveros’ bilingual preschool room at School 33. At home, she speaks to him in English, and his father and her mother speak to him in Spanish, she said.

Before enrolling him in the bilingual preschool classroom, Alenniel would become frustrated when trying to say something either in English or Spanish, López explained. That led to behavioral issues, she said.

"Now, he calms down and really tries," she said. "Now, when his dad talks to him in Spanish, he listens. And when I talk to him in English, he listens no problem."

The city school district saw a need for bilingual preschool classrooms, which also are available at two other elementary schools, when during screenings some students were not showing dominance in either English or Spanish, explained Robin Hooper, director of early childhood education.

"They had no firm foundation in either language," she added, and were speaking a blend of the two languages.

And because the structure of English and Spanish are so different, speaking that way was creating confusion for the children, Hooper said.

"You have to get a good sense of structure of a language to transition into the other language," she added.

So, in 2005, the district created a focus group to look at the needs of bilingual students and came up with the proposal for a bilingual preschool classroom, Hooper said.

School 33’s bilingual pre-K class works a little differently than the dual-language model of the rest of the school, Hooper said. In a dual-language school, students who are Hispanic and non-Hispanic learn proficiency in both languages in all subjects, she explained.

But in the all-day bilingual pre-K room, students learn Spanish in the first three quarters of the school year and English is introduced for the last couple of months, Hooper noted.

"We start basic with counting, colors and numbers," she said. "That helps transition them into the kindergarten program."

The school is taking a sensible approach to give the linguistic foundation that the children need, agreed Mary Jane Curry, associate professor of education at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education.

Curry also will be one of the leaders of a new project to train school personnel on how to better serve students who are learning English in all subject areas. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Language Acquisition is funding the five-year project, which will include work with the city school district.

"People keep talking that we’re in a global world," she said. "The idea is that it is useful and important to maintain a student’s first language."

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