Does Dual Language Work?

Selecting the perfect school for your child can be like an alphabet soup of choice: charter, zoned, magnet, Vanguard. Even amongst magnets, there's the choice of science and math, music or dual language. Dual language is the magnet choice that’s becoming more popular with parents.

"Stella Cisero Harkness … "

"Aria Alejandro Harkness ... "

There was a time when ten year old Stella Harkness and her eight year old sister Aria didn’t know a word of Spanish. That’s clearly not the case anymore. 

"Uno, dos, tres ..."

Renee Harkness is their mom. When it came to picking a school she kind of let her nationality influence her choice.

"My husband and I are both Canadian, and we figured if we were going to contribute to Canada’s negative birth rate, the least we could do is give them a good Canadian tradition, such as a dual language education."

Harkness choose Spanish dual language magnet school, Wharton Elementary, in the Montrose area. But it’s not the only dual language magnet in the Houston Independent School District.

"Welcome to our school, Helms Elementary."

Diana Del Pilar is principal of Helm’s which is located in the Heights, and this is how dual language school works.

"So students in Pre-Kindergarten are able to be immersed in Spanish 90% of the day and have their English language development through science and social studies for 10% of the day. The classrooms are comprised of 50% English speakers and 50% Spanish or bilingual students."

Because of this 50/50 split teachers can create bilingual pairs.  Which means matching a native English speaker with a fluent Spanish speaker. This way kids learn each other’s language whether that’s English or Spanish.

This is apparent in Luzmarie Alvarez’s 2nd grade class.

Mallory’s first language is English, but she’s answering a question from Principal Del Pilar in Spanish.

Mallory: "Del yo…."

Del Pilar: "Mallory described the difference between the duck having feathers and the giraffe and she kind of struggled with the right vocabulary. So her bilingual pair helped her with the right word, and then she was able to quickly catch on and complete her sentence."

And working in pairs from Pre-K through to 5th grade they also learn life skills. In a Pre-K classroom two girls are trying to share a task.

Del Pilar again:

"When they start in Pre-K, when they’re learning those social skills, they have to learn how to share. You see they’re negotiating, they know that they’re supposed to share the book and it’s supposed to be in their lap. The little girl was tugging at the other girl."

While these skills are all very useful, how well does the dual language model fair when it comes to test scores?

"And last year, they scored at the 95 percentile on English TAKS reading, the district average last year was 85%."

Terrie Armstong is HISD’s multilingual program analyst. She says with a school district that is over 60% Latino or Hispanic, HISD will continue to grow this model. This year alone five dual language programs are being added across the district.

As far as ten-year old Stella Harkness is concerned, that’s a good thing.

"I love it. Me gusta!"

For more information on dual language schools, visit HISD.

Bio photo of Edel Howlin

Edel Howlin

Producer, Houston Matters

Edel is a producer on Houston Matters and reporter for PBS’s Newshour Weekend...