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April 10, 2007

A Window on Bilingual Pre-K

[This entry was contributed by guest blogger Marissa Castro Mikoy, the director of the Universal Pre-Kindergarten Incentive Program at CentroNía, an educational community-based organization in Washington, D.C.]

The birds are chirping, trees are budding, and flowers are blooming -- Happy Spring everyone!

I appreciate the opportunity to fill in for Sophia this week, provide a window into the pre-k program I direct, and read your comments. I thought I'd focus on the activities that make CentroNía's practices unique to the early childhood education field, the importance of high-quality bilingual education, and how our program supports children and families in the transition to kindergarten.

A bilingual classroom at CentroNíaCentroNía is in the heart of a diverse and vibrant neighborhood in Northwest DC. Our classrooms are filled with children of families who speak Amharic, Spanish, English and Vietnamese. To support our children's native language and culture, we engage in a dual language model of instruction in Spanish and English. Every classroom is outfitted with a designated English speaking teacher and a designated Spanish speaking teacher. All learning centers are labeled in Spanish and English print, and passersby in the hall quickly notice the children engaged in conversations with each other in both languages. We aim to provide a safe environment where the children can express themselves in their language of choice while also having the opportunity to speak in the language they are learning.

Research has repeatedly demonstrated that second language acquisition is successful if children are given the opportunity to develop a strong foundation in their native language. (This letter to the editor in The Washington Post sums up why bilingual education, contrary to the assertions of folks like Newt Gingrich, is effective in teaching children English.) We are beginning to look at how to measure second language acquisition by administering the Brigance Screening in both languages through a baseline and post assessment. But we already have many anecdotes showing our children's progess -- here is one.

Four-year-old Diana entered our pre-k program with knowledge of Russian and English. At the beginning, Mom was concerned that Diana might get "confused" learning a third language. My suggestion was to see how the first couple of weeks went and to observe her comfort level in communicating with her classmates. Fast forward nine months and I can tell you that Diana is singing in Spanish, learning to write her name and identify letters in English, and increasing her Russian vocabulary with her family. Her father stopped by my office one day to say, "Marissa, who knew we had a genius on our hands?" I share this story in part to say that, if children are exposed to an additional language in an intentional and research-based model, we would see many more "geniuses" entering kindergarten.

I strongly believe that our success comes from the support and celebration of a family's linguistic and cultural differences. We bring these differences into the center and make them part of the classroom environment. I hope the benefits of supporting English language learners are seen by more and more of our community stakeholders. It is only in this way we will be begin to see a stronger public education system.

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