Adios, language barrier

Spanish: All pupils at Furman L. Templeton Elementary, in its first year of being run by private, for-profit Edison Schools, are being taught a second language.

March 16, 2001|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Seven prekindergartners are making their way into Miss G.'s classroom when one of them offers an unprompted greeting.

"Buenas tardes," Janay says.

Even the teacher, Diana Gutierrez, seems surprised by the Spanish "good afternoon." The girl is only 4 years old.

"The younger, the better," Gutierrez says.

Every pupil at Furman L. Templeton Elementary is taking Spanish this year, the first of at least five years that the troubled West Baltimore school will be managed by a private, for-profit company, Edison Schools.

At a school where pupils struggle to read and write English, and where behavior problems often inhibit learning, foreign language instruction is treated as less of an academic pursuit and more of a "special" offering, like music, art and gym.

That it is offered at all is what's unusual. Some Baltimore high schools offer courses in foreign languages including German and Japanese, but foreign languages are rarely taught in city elementaries.

In Gutierrez's classroom, hello becomes hola, good morning becomes buenos dias, and how are you becomes como estas. Gracias, or thank you, is one recent "phrase of the week."

Pupils practice vocabulary words from a unit on classroom objects and watch a videotape of "Plaza Sesamo," the Spanish version of "Sesame Street." They listen to a song about the days of the week and count aloud from uno to veinte.

They don't understand every word, but Miss G. -- as the school's only Spanish teacher is known -- says some of the pupils are intrigued by the idea that there's more than one way to say "pencil" or "hamburger."

"I think they understand that it's another way to speak, and it's another culture," says Gutierrez, a former high school Spanish teacher in Howard County and a native of Colombia. "They can get used to a different way of saying things. Your experience is what helps you get used to other cultures."

Edison Schools, a New York-based school management company, was hired by the state last year to run three of the city's worst-performing elementaries. The 1,600 children at Furman L. Templeton, Gilmor and Montebello are taking part in a high-stakes experiment in the privatization of public schools.

Edison stresses world language instruction in its reform program. The idea is to expose pupils to a second language early -- when it is thought to be easier for them to learn it -- with a long-term goal of fluency in Spanish.

Some studies have found that bilingual children are better at solving problems and can learn to read and write faster than those who speak one language.

Edison calls for foreign language instruction for 45 minutes every other day, but the pupils at Templeton visit Gutierrez's classroom once every four days, which can make it hard for them to remember what they've learned.

Spanish is new to most of the pupils, who come from a tough neighborhood along West Baltimore's Pennsylvania Avenue corridor. They might know Ricky Martin's hit song "La Vida Loca" or might have heard Arnold Schwarzenegger say "Hasta la vista, baby," but they have not been exposed to Spanish formally.

Keeping their attention in class is not always easy.

One recent Tuesday, about 25 kindergartners arrive with a warning from their teacher that they're jittery. Gutierrez tries to get them to guess in Spanish what classroom objects she has inside a paper bag, but no one seems to care.

A few children are out of their seats, running between the desks. Two boys are bawling. Another is hiding behind a wooden bookcase.

Later, when Gutierrez passes out paper and crayons so that the pupils can draw a casa, or house, it's a struggle.

Hired by Edison shortly after school began in September, Gutierrez, 37, is in her first year at Templeton. Spanish is her native language, and she knows what it's like to learn a foreign language. She came to the United States at age 11 not knowing English.

Attending school in Connecticut, she was placed as a sixth-grader in an English class for speakers of other languages.

"The experience is what gets you into speaking a different language," says Gutierrez, who earned a degree in Spanish education from Towson University three years ago. "The more you hear it, the more interested you get in the language, the more you want to learn it."

Repetition is key, the teacher says. So she goes through all of the vocabulary words -- pencil, desk, chair, paper, ruler -- over and over in a sing-song voice.

"Everybody say una silla," she tells Edmund Demeritte's second-grade class, referring to the Spanish word for chair.

"Una silla," they echo.

Trying to count the sillas in the room is a challenge, however. The children haven't mastered numbers 1 through 20, and besides, there are more than 20 chairs.

Spanish class is over, and the children start to line up at the door.

"Study your numbers -- numeros," Miss G. says. "Adios."

That the pupils understand.

"Adios," they reply.

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