Becoming bilingual: Georgia Brown Elementary students learn in English and Spanish

On a Tuesday afternoon at Georgia Brown Elementary School in Paso Robles, a class of first-graders tried to find a way to carry grapefruits without using their hands.

Two students — a boy and a girl — kept trying to demonstrate their envelope-like contraption, which they’d assembled out of red and yellow construction paper, silver duct tape and yarn. But to their dismay, the grapefruit kept falling out.

It worked the “otro tiempo,” the other time, the girl insisted to her teacher in Spanish.

The students engineering grapefruit transportation devices are among the 608 children who learn Spanish and English at Georgia Brown, one of two dual-immersion schools in San Luis Obispo County.

Over the past 20 years, California has gone from officially discouraging bilingual education to promoting proficiency in two languages. Twenty-two percent of public school students in California are English-language learners, the highest percentage of any state, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

In San Luis Obispo County, about 15 percent of students are English learners, and the numbers have been growing.

In spite of changing policies, Georgia Brown — which started its dual-immersion program in 1997 — has remained steadfast in its commitment to teaching students in two languages beginning the first day of kindergarten.

And being able to communicate in both Spanish and English has become increasingly sought-after over the past two decades, so much so that parents are willing to line up before dawn to enroll their children in Georgia Brown’s kindergarten classes.

“I’m just always amazed we can get the benefit of them learning a foreign language in a public school,” said Quill Chase, whose four children have all attended Georgia Brown, including one who’s a second-grader now.

What is a dual-immersion school?

Dual-immersion schools offer a form of bilingual education that brings together English speakers and English learners.

Although Georgia Brown teaches Spanish, other California dual-immersion schools offer programs in Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean and other languages.

At Georgia Brown, half of the students enter as English speakers and half as Spanish speakers. They spend their first three years of school learning 90 percent of the curriculum in Spanish and 10 percent in English. In fourth and fifth grade, students are taught 50 percent of their lessons in Spanish and 50 percent in English.

Pacheco Elementary School in San Luis Obispo, the other dual-immersion school in the county, previously used a 50-50 model that separated English speakers and Spanish speakers for language arts classes and taught the other classes in English and Spanish. But Principal Rick Mayfield said Pacheco switched to the 90-10 model two years ago.

“English is such a dominant language in the schools,” he said. “We really need to beef up the Spanish.”

Because half of the students are learning Spanish, Georgia Brown teachers are very animated and rely on hand gestures, facial expressions and pictures to supplement their speaking and writing. Between lessons, some students still talk to each other in English, although all their conversations with teachers must be in Spanish.

On Tuesday, the first-graders finished their inventions and moved on to a lesson about squirrels. Students sat cross-legged in a semicircle around a dry-erase board as their teacher drew an acorn in blue marker. But instead of reading “squirrels eat acorns,” the board read “las ardillas comen bellotas.”

From 1998 until 2017, California students weren’t allowed to receive this type of instruction unless their parents signed waivers permitting it. Proposition 227, approved by 60 percent of voters in June 1998, required that public school students be taught mostly in English. Those who proposed the ballot measure claimed non-native English speakers enrolled in bilingual programs weren’t adequately learning English.

Opponents claimed the measure was racist and aimed at forcing foreign-language speakers to forsake their native languages.

Over time, attitudes toward bilingual education have changed along with California’s demographic makeup.

Latinos became the state’s biggest ethnic group in 2015, outnumbering whites, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And an increasingly digital world and globalized economy has increased the value of being able to speak more than one language, said Robert Oakes, assistant director of communications for the California Department of Education.

In 2012, California began awarding a State Seal of Biliteracy to high school graduates who can prove their proficiency in two languages. The state awarded seals to 10,000 students the first year, Oakes said. That number grew to 40,000 students in 2016.

“There were just a lot of artificial barriers to a growing demand,” Oakes said.

Last November, some of those barriers were removed when 74 percent of voters approved Proposition 58, which repealed the restrictions Proposition 227 put in place in 1998. Starting during the 2017-18 school year, students will still be required to attain English proficiency, but bilingual programs will be more accessible.

At Georgia Brown, however, biliteracy is business as usual.

“I think it just strengthens our commitment,” said Principal Michele Tesauro, when asked about the success of Proposition 58.

A less conventional education

Parents, teachers and students who support Georgia Brown say its unique educational environment builds community and increases kids’ capacity to learn.

Nicole Delbar, an instructional coach at Georgia Brown, helped start the school’s dual-immersion program in the late 1990s. Before making the switch, the school was underachieving and losing English speakers, Delbar said.

The dual-immersion program changed that, attracting parents who wanted their English-speaking children to learn Spanish. The Georgia Brown program gave those students a Spanish-speaking model and provided Spanish speakers with an English-speaking model.

Twenty years later, Delbar said teachers and administrators can see the fruits of the school’s labor, and how Georgia Brown students have gone on to make use of their language skills.

“It was really faith with the first groups we had go through,” Delbar said.

Georgia Brown is now the biggest elementary school in the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District. It has a waiting list and will offer five kindergarten classes next year. Pacheco in San Luis Obispo has also run a bilingual program for more than 20 years and is also the biggest elementary school in San Luis Coastal Unified School District with 587 students.

Parents flock to the schools for their community feel and the language skills their children — both Spanish speakers and English speakers — are given the chance to learn early in their lives.

“They’re all going to do what they want to do with it,” said Susan Delgado, a Georgia Brown second-grade teacher. “But giving them that opportunity — that’s a gift.”

Because Georgia Brown accepts students solely on a first-come, first-served basis, long lines form on kindergarten registration days. Lupe Campoverde, whose son is a first-grader, said she got in line at 4 a.m. to make sure he was accepted.

Campoverde said she sends her son to Georgia Brown because she wants him to learn to read and write in Spanish, which the family speaks at home. Even though she lives across town from the school, she said it’s worth the drive to see him excel in both languages.

“Somehow, he is becoming bilingual already,” she said.

Delbar, the instructional coach, said some Spanish-speaking families like the Campoverdes choose Georgia Brown to make sure their children retain the language skills they begin building at home. When families immigrate to the United States, the first generation may speak limited English, the second generation might be bilingual and the third generation could speak only English, Delbar said.

“It’s really building on the great advantage they come to school with,” she said.

For English-speaking students, the dual-immersion program gives them a leg up and makes them more competitive when applying to colleges or jobs.

Quill Chase, whose four children have attended Georgia Brown, said his kids have learned to read more slowly in Spanish, but “just took off” when they got to English.

As Chase watched his older kids progress through school, he said being immersed in another language helped increase their capacity to learn. Now, two of his kids are in college, one at Cal Poly and another at Bard College in New York.

“They really were the high achievers,” he said.

A long-range view of schooling

There are some downsides to dual-immersion schools, such as lower standardized test scores and some parents’ inability to help their kids with homework in another language. But teachers — many of whom have sent their own kids to Georgia Brown — and students say it’s worthwhile to overcome such difficulties.

The school’s third-, fourth- and fifth-grade California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress 2016 test scores don’t substantially differ from the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District’s overall scores.

Although the percentage of students who met or exceeded standards for math was low, students’ English and language arts scores improved steadily from third to fifth grade, exceeding the districtwide elementary school scores by the later grade.

Thirty-four percent of Georgia Brown third-graders met or exceeded standards in English, which jumped to 56 percent for fifth-graders. Districtwide, 45 percent of third graders met or exceeded standards in English, climbing to 51 percent in the fifth grade.

Delbar said parents might initially need to see beyond test scores to the future benefits of a bilingual education.

“We’re looking long-range,” said Delbar. “That’s something parents have to understand signing up. You have to be committed to the program.”

Fifth-graders Chloe Railsback, 10, and Mia Bickle, 11, both started out at Georgia Brown speaking English. They said learning Spanish at school is “not that hard once you get used to it.”

“It’s really fun, and it can be really useful too,” said Chloe, who enjoys being able to communicate with Spanish speakers.

Carina Ezzell, 17, a senior at Paso Robles High School, said her parents enrolled her at Georgia Brown in kindergarten to make sure she was challenged at school.

“When you’re younger, you just kind of go with the flow,” she said.

Carina said she felt most proficient in Spanish right after she completed Georgia Brown. She continued to take Spanish core classes in sixth grade — which included language arts and social studies — and social studies classes in Spanish in seventh and eighth grade.

During her freshman year of high school, Carina said she took the AP Spanish test and earned a 5, the highest possible score. She took dual-immersion honors world history in high school, and would have taken more Spanish classes if Paso Robles High offered them.

In the next couple of years, the district is planning to roll out a high school Spanish literature class and a Spanish for special purposes class, which would allow students to begin developing skills as translators, said Babette Decou, the chief academic officer.

“I wish there were more opportunities to have that integrated into my schooling,” Carina said.

Knowing Spanish has helped Carina communicate on family trips to Mexico and Costa Rica. She said she also uses her language skills to tutor English learners at Bauer Speck Elementary School through the Books with Buddies program.

Carina plans to study biology at UCLA after she graduates, and said she hopes to use her Spanish language skills in her career as a doctor.

“In California, it helps a lot being able to communicate,” she said.

Marilu Gomez, Georgia Brown’s school readiness coordinator, said she remembers a time when bilingual education wasn’t accepted.

“When I was going to school, there was a taboo to speak Spanish,” she said. “That was very difficult for me as a Latina.”

Now, she said she enjoys seeing a “melting pot” of students — from vineyard owners’ children to vineyard workers’ children — learning together.

“That’s really what America is all about,” she said.

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseyholden27