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Bilingual approach doesn’t work well, but Nogales’ schools found what does

Bilingual approach doesn’t work well, but Nogales’ schools found what does

An opinion column (“Dual-language learning for all students is visionary,” Dec. 2) from is absolutely correct when it stated that the “persistent underachievement of Latino students has nothing to do with a lack of ability or talent. Latino students are just as smart.”

Where the column runs amok is in the misguided assumption that those students would benefit from a bilingual curriculum. The Nogales Unified School District has been there, done that, and it simply did not work.

Over the last four decades, NUSD has tried a variety of approaches. One was to have Spanish-speaking students instructed almost exclusively in Spanish for at least three years. The theory was that if students gain literacy skills in one language, those skills would transfer, and as the students mastered more English, they would eventually graduate with strong academic skills in both. For more than 80 percent of the students, however, the English skills simply did not materialize beyond a conversational level.

There are reasons for this: for most, the only time they heard English was in the classroom. Spanish dominated their homes, the media, the signs and their interactions with peers. There was simply not enough English exposure to build the all-important language base for functional use that serves as a springboard to academic mastery. Tucson may be able to sustain a few magnet schools with this balance, but this balance will never be pandemic.

Then NUSD tried a slightly different approach: All students, even those few who spoke monolingual English, would receive instruction for one day in English and one in Spanish. The results were even more dismal. The major stumbling blocks were the lack of truly academically strong bilingual teachers and an equal number of English and Spanish students. For the few classes that were lucky enough to have a teacher who truly switched effortlessly from English to Spanish, the program worked well for some, but certainly not all. Most students did not receive a balanced blend of English instruction that would allow them to do well in high school and beyond.

Then, again ahead of the times, NUSD decided to teach all in English from kindergarten on. Students receive Spanish language classes starting in middle school, and Nogales High School offers a full range of classes including Spanish literature in both Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate. Dozens of students, even monolingual-English speakers, score high enough to completely meet the two years of Spanish needed for most college programs, earning as many as 16 credits before even starting.

The proof is in the results. The AIMS scores for all grade levels have increased from percentiles in the 40s to the 80s. Last year Wade Carpenter Middle School was the top Title One school in the state and this year Francisco Vasquez de Coronado Elementary School won one of four National Blue Ribbon awards given to Arizona.

While the vast majority graduate with a conversational fluency in both languages, many are not academically bilingual, especially the handful of Anglo students who only take conversational Spanish. Those who opt to take Spanish classes beyond the required minimum have soared, but only because they had a solid foundation in English and not a mishmash of “visionary” curricula. And most importantly, the schools remain bicultural despite the emphasis on English instruction. If it happens on the border, it can happen anywhere. As the column stated, it makes sense to teach both languages, but reality dictates that first a solid core of English must be established.

Kathy Scott is the director of grants and Title 1 for the Nogales Unified School District. Contact her at

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