SAISD’s Mark Twain Middle School to Become Dual Language Academy

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International dual language expert Dr. Kathy Escamilla speaks about the benefits of dual-language instruction.

Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / Rivard Report

International dual language expert Kathy Escamilla speaks about the benefits of dual language instruction.

In an effort to bolster its dual language programs and better prepare students for an increasingly globalized society, San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) will transform Mark Twain Middle School, located at 2411 San Pedro Ave., into the Mark Twain Dual Language Academy.

District officials held an informational meeting – dubbed the Dual Language Summit – Monday with a group of educators, students, and parents in the middle school's auditorium to describe the plans for the dual language institution that will officially open for the 2017-2018 school year to Pre-K-2nd graders.

The Academy will complement the district's two other dual language programs – one at Bonham Academy, which has grown increasingly popular and has a waiting list, and one at Ferdinand Herff Elementary – and will feature Spanish and English instruction for all students enrolled.

While a robust dual language curriculum at the Academy will enhance the students' cognitive development – one of the main goals of the program and one of the major benefits of bilingual education – district educators and administrators hope that students will also gain a renewed sense of pride in their culture and the Spanish language.

"Many times (in school) we forget that having a second language is a significant asset," said SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez, who grew up bilingual.

SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez speaks about the importance of empowering English language learners.

Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / Rivard Report

SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez speaks about the importance of empowering English language learners.

Martinez said that he, district administrators, and teachers anticipate the Mark Twain Dual Language Academy to eventually become a national model, a premier dual language "choice school" in the area where more than 10,000 students are English language learners.

"We want this program to be a magnet," he said. Priority will first be given to students from the surrounding neighborhood, he added, and then admissions will open up to the entire district and eventually those outside the district as well.

Mark Twain Middle School is being phased out to accommodate a new dual language class each year. The Dual Language Academy eventually will grow to full enrollment with Pre-K to 8th grade classes by the 2023-24 school year.

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Whereas some schools feature optional dual language programs as part of their curriculum, the Mark Twain Dual Language Academy will function as a 100% dual language institution, officials said, meaning every student will be enrolled in the dual language program.

"Dual language right now should be the norm in which students are educated in schools in the U.S. because it has the goal of bilingualism, biliteracy, and biculturalism," Olivia Hernández, SAISD assistant superintendent for bilingual/ESL instruction who has more than 30 years of experience in the field, told the Rivard Report. "But more than anything, it has great benefits regarding cognitive development for students."

Hernández said that the new academy will shift the focus from transitional dual language programs, where students' focus on learning English can overshadow their ability to maintain their native language, to a system where they maintain both.

While it's important to continue to grow students' English learning, she said, it's equally important to progress their Spanish learning – in reading, writing, and speaking.

Mark Twain Dual Language Academy, Hernández added, will provide students with high level instruction in both English and Spanish as well as "a multicultural curriculum where students will perform academically at or above grade level."

Hernández is leading a bilingual/dual language redesign committee where stakeholders such as local principals, teachers, university professors, district administrators, and even nonprofit organizations are analyzing different programs and models to implement bilingual instruction in the new school.

Olivia Hernández, SAISD assistant superintendent for bilingual/ESL instruction, gives a presentation about the Mark Twain Dual Language Academy.

Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / Rivard Report

Olivia Hernández, SAISD assistant superintendent for bilingual/ESL instruction, gives a presentation about the Mark Twain Dual Language Academy.

"We have the opportunity to start this from scratch," said Hernández, who has overseen the implementation of dual language programs in more than 50 schools throughout her career, serving more than 23,000 English language learners. "We're providing all the opportunities for all the different stakeholders to provide their input on the type of models that they would want."

The group, she added, is using research every step of the way to guide them through the process. She has seen firsthand the benefits of such programs, most notably on students' cognitive development. Some dual language programs, she said, also have been proven to fully close the academic achievement gap between English language learners and native English speakers.

One model the group is considering is Literacy Squared, a framework that focuses on "develop(ing) biliteracy through attention to literacy in Spanish as well as English, attend(ing) to the quality of instruction, and plan(ning) instruction to include direct and explicit attention to cross-language connections."

Kathy Escamilla, an international expert on bilingual and bicultural education with Literacy Squared, gave Monday's keynote address in which she talked about the framework and about shifting the way the traditional education system treats English language learners.

Many students come to school speaking Spanish and learn English for the first time at school.

"We don’t treat this as an advantage, we treat this is this as some kind of disadvantage," said Escamilla, adding that testing favors native English speakers.

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The comprehensive Literacy Squared framework, which has already been successfully implemented in select schools in Austin, involves looking at "a whole child versus half a child," Escamilla said, meaning teachers should pay more attention to a children's competency in both languages rather than just one and see how that contributes to their "trajectory toward biliteracy."

SAISD's four main goals for its dual language programs include:

  • high cognitive and academic achievement

  • bilingualism

  • biliteracy

  • positive cross-cultural attitudes and high levels of self-esteem

The long-term vision for Mark Twain includes turning the school into a lab for bilingual teachers in university training. The district is already exploring partnerships with the University of Texas at San Antonio to make this possible.

Eventually, Martinez said, the district also plans to establish a 100% dual language high school so students can have access to a fully-bilingual educational experience from Pre-K to 12th grade.

SAISD officials, under the leadership of Martinez and Hernández, are also hoping to bolster the district's existing dual language programs and implement more in the coming years. Along with the Mark Twain Dual Language Academy, a key focus will be on refining the programs at Bonham and Herff "to ensure they are functioning at the highest level," Hernández said.

She reminded Monday's group that establishing a successful dual language program and seeing positive results with the students takes time and patience.

"People will drop dual language programs because (they) don’t see the benefits right away," Hernández said, "but you have to stay the course."

More information on the school will be released at a later date as plans develop.

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