Miracle in the Heights
A visit to Helms Elementary in the Houston Heights often raises the eyebrows of the first-time visitor, when he or she hears a second-grader speaking Spanish like a native, then discovers that the chatter is coming from a red-haired Anglo or an African-American child. Conversely, the Hispanic children are learning flawless English in addition to gaining the needed proficiency in their native tongue.
This is the Dual Language approach at work. Begun more than a decade ago by the University of St. Thomas School of Education, students leave elementary school proficient in two languages. And why not?
“Given the demands of a global economy and in a city like Houston, it’s important that students who come to school speaking Spanish maintain their Spanish and develop academic proficiency in the language,” said Dr. Higinia Torres-Rimbau, UST professor of Education. “The research has shown the students reach proficiency levels by the fifth grade. That is, the English speaking students are fluent in Spanish, and the Spanish speaking students become fluent in English.”
In the program, students spend half of each day in Spanish-only classes and half in English-only classes. The carefully measured balance for each grade helps students reach extraordinary levels of achievement.
“Research shows that students who take part in the two-way language development programs outperform their monolingual, English-speaking peers, both academically and linguistically,” said Dr. Ellen de Kanter, professor emerita, Dual Language Education.
In a city that boasts Houston’s diversity, learning another language eases social relationships. “I grew up bilingual,” says Helms parent and Houston City Attorney Arturo Michel, “but my wife is slowly learning Spanish as she finds the time. We think it is important that our child learn Spanish because of our family tradition.”
Helms Principal Theresa Campos recognizes that the children learning each others’ languages in her school today will be the mainstays of the tomorrow’s economy. “It’s a wonderful situation for our students,” she said. “The sky is the limit in terms of what they can be because they are surrounded by professionals who care about them as learners.”
While some still refer to it as the dual language “theory,” little about the Dual Language approach remains theoretical: It works, and has won Helms the prestigious distinction as a National Demonstration School. Only 10 campuses nationwide have earned the award – and Helms has won it three consecutive times. Among Texas schools, Helms was the only recipient.