Maria Nevarez, a kindergarten teacher at River Glen School in San Jose, knelt before her class of 30 squirming 5- and 6-year-olds.
In roll call manner she asked each - in Spanish - whether they brought lunch from home, “de casa,” or whether they will buy the school’s hot lunch, “en la escuela.”
“Rodrigo?” Nevarez asked.
“Escuela, por favor,” he replied in perfect Spanish.
“Escuela, por favor.”
“Casa, por favor.”
“Casa, por favor.”
To a visitor, all 30 students appear to be native Spanish-speakers. But in truth, Spanish is the first language of only half the kids. The others are native English-speakers.
These kids are learning each other’s language in a public school that’s at the cutting edge of efforts to prepare kids for a multicultural future.
In the primary grades, almost all lessons and conversations at the San Jose Unified School District elementary school take place only in Spanish.
Parents are expected to be heavily involved and are offered language courses as well.
River Glen’s kids have had such success through this approach that the school has won a half-milliondollar federal grant to take the program to at least eight other schools in California, the Southwest and Alaska.
What happens at the school is special - and different from other bilingual programs - because the goal is biliteracy: By the time students reach fifth grade, they can read, write and speak both languages proficiently.
This type of approach is not embraced by everyone. Critics - including some educators - note that many kids from English-speaking backgrounds fall behind in the early years, because they are not focusing on English language instruction.
But research shows that by the fourth grade, those students have pulled even with peers at other schools, and in fifth grade, score well above the average English- or Spanish-speaking student.
Parents, teachers and school officials who created this program - and many kids themselves - say the benefits for students go beyond academic achievement in two languages. These students, they say, are learning important cultural lessons and preparing for a global job market.
“If you speak two languages in this country, there’s more opportunity,” said Juan Miguel Munoz, 12, a sixth grader at River Glen. “We’ll have an advantage when it’s time to get jobs.”
Born in Jalisco, Mexico, Juan lived in the United States until he was 3, then returned to Mexico. His family moved back to San Jose three years ago, and Juan started school at River Glen as a third grader.
At that time, he spoke no English. Now, he’s fluent in both languages.
There are about 170 two-way immersion programs nationwide, most of them Spanish-English.
A criticism of some widely used bilingual approaches is that they use techniques that are more like language “submersion”: Students who have a dominant language other than English are forced into classes where learning English is the goal.
As a result, those kids lose proficiency in their native language.
In contrast, immersion programs focus on the “other” language - maintaining proficiency in the native language while also building in the new.
“Being new here, one thing that amazes me is that kids will come up to me on the playground and talk to me in Spanish, and I cannot tell who is a native Spanish-speaker,” said Cecilia Barrie, River Glen’s new principal, who took the post last week so Rosa Molina, the former principal, can work on expanding the program to other schools.
Nevarez’s kindergarten class is a model Molina will try to replicate elsewhere. The classroom buzzes with activity. The room looks like any other kindergarten - colorful student artwork lines the walls, the alphabet is posted, along with numbers, colors, months and days of the week. The only difference is that all materials are in Spanish.
From the very first day of school, Nevarez addresses kids only in Spanish. This is quite confusing for the English-speaking kids - but incredibly comforting to those who speak Spanish. She starts the year relying on body language, enunciation - anything she can do to get her point across without breaking her golden rule: No English.
“At the beginning of the year, you’re drawing pictures, dancing, singing - it’s so funny to watch me,” Nevarez said. “I always mix (the Spanish-speakers with the Englishspeakers) because they need to have someone they can communicate with.”
Because she adheres so closely to her “no English” rule, Nevarez’s students think she can only speak Spanish.
When she’s asked a question in English, she responds in Spanish.
Students at River Glen are never forced to speak Spanish.
But during Spanish time, they will not be addressed in English, no matter how frustrated they might be.
Proponents say such two-way immersion programs work because no one is forced to participate.
The River Glen program is just one of many magnet school choices available to parents in San Jose Unified School District. Kids can only enter in kindergarten or first grade, and parents who send kids to River Glen make a six-year commitment.
Kids at River Glen spend 90 percent of their day learning in Spanish and 10 percent learning in English during kindergarten and first grade.
In second grade, 80 percent of the instruction is in Spanish and 20 percent in English; in third grade it’s 70 percent, 30 percent, and by the time students reach fifth grade, half of each day is spent learning in Spanish and half in English.
That doesn’t mean that during the Spanish part of the day kids are only learning about the language.
They are learning to read, write, and do math and all other course work in Spanish. That, teachers say, is the key to biliteracy.
The school is stocked with a vast supply of Spanish-language literature, math, science and reading textbooks, computer programs, library books and games.
“Part of the rationale is to build up intensive Spanish, because if you don’t start intensive Spanish early on, the students will not get enough vocabulary and grammar to work up to grade level,” said Kathryn Lindholm, associate professor of education at San Jose State University, who’s been tracking the River Glen program since it began in 1986.
“There are very few schools out there that can say, ‘We are integrated and we treat all students equally,”’ said Lindholm. At River Glen, “neither group sees the other group as not being smart enough. It’s really nice how the whole issue of cooperation and assistance is really built in there.
“It’s not just desegregation, it’s a true integration program.”