In one first-grade classroom, children sit at tables in groups of five or six, making patterns out of yellow hexagon or green diamond blocks, following instructions on a worksheet. Teacher Christin Muñoz walks around and gives extra help to some.
Next door, the same number of first-graders sit in similar groups, using the same worksheet and blocks. The difference is that in the Myra Castro’s class, she is giving instructions to the class only in Spanish.
The dual strains of English and Spanish are now heard at Dever Elementary School in Dorchester, a year after the school launched its dual-language program, joining three other Boston public schools offering such a method.
Teachers and Boston school officials wanted an improvement over a traditional English-immersion curriculum at a school where close to half of the students do not speak English as a first language. So Dever’s administration took inspiration from other dual-language programs across the country and started offering classes taught in both English and Spanish, with the hopes that the method would improve student learning.
A year later, school officials say the program is growing in popularity among instructors, students and parents. It’s a boost for a school the state labeled as “underperforming'' last year.
“It was motivated by teachers who were not satisfied with the English-immersion system,” Dever Principal Michael Sabin said. “It has an added benefit to students. Seems like a win-win.”
Christine Cronin, director of instruction at Dever, said there has been incredible response from parents.
“There’s a waiting list to get into the [dual-language] kindergarten classes,” she said.
Cronin said parents decide during enrollment to put their kindergarten, first- or second-grade children in either a dual-language class or an English-only classroom. There are roughly 25 students in each class.
Cronin said the curriculum in the dual-language classes is exactly the same as in the English-only ones. The children in Ana Arroyo’s kindergarten class, for example, were spending a recent morning counting to 20 in Spanish, sitting in a circle on the carpet – a mirror of what the English-only classes were doing that day.
Typically, Cronin said, students in kindergarten and first-grade classes will get instruction from their teacher in English one week, and Spanish the next. Most student worksheets are available in English and Spanish, as are homework assignments.
Dever’s program was initially modeled on the K-8 curriculum of Hernandez School in Roxbury. But Cronin said Dever is already working to modify its teaching program as it expands into the upper grades.
Currently, kindergarten and first-grade students have one teacher who alternates between English and Spanish language instruction. But Cronin said the second-grade classes have started with a new model, in which the two dual-language classes alternate between teachers, one who speaks solely English, and the other only Spanish. “That’s more unique among dual-language programs,” Cronin said.
Plans call for dual-language classes eventually to be offered in all grades, through the eighth grade at adjacent McCormick Middle School, where Sabin also serves as principal. Sabin said further expansion depends on parent interest, which already appears strong.
“Parents are starting to understand this model, and they’re putting their children in these programs,” Cronin said.
The dual-language focus also has created more conversation about cultures, Dever administrators said.
“We have a pan-Latin American culture. We have kids from Vietnam, kids from Kurdistan. Culture just comes up,” Cronin said.
Sabin said now that students are speaking Spanish, they’re learning about more than just the language. “They have a cultural respect,” he said. “We’re lucky to have diverse cultures here.”
The real test for Dever’s dual-language program will come in the spring of 2012, when students in the program take the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test for the first time.
But Sabin said the school didn’t start teaching in two languages to stem poor test results.
“It’s not a compensation, but a desire,” he said.
This article was reported and written by Northeastern University journalism student Zac Estrada, under the supervision of Journalism Instructor Lisa Chedekel (firstname.lastname@example.org), as part of a collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.