Researcher’s Pioneering Bilingual Preschool Program a Model of Success

By Tom McLaughlin

Bilingual preschool education may one day become the norm in the United States, rather than the exception, thanks to a pioneering initiative run by Rutgers University–Camden researcher Silvia Perez-Cortes in conjunction with Catholic Partnership Schools in Camden.

Perez-Cortes works with a child in the bilingual preschool program.

Perez-Cortes, an assistant professor of Spanish, is currently serving as a consultant for a task force that started a groundbreaking dual language preschool program – one of the first in South Jersey – at St. Anthony of Padua School in Camden.

“We can’t ignore the fact that the majority of the American population is bilingual, either by birth or because they’ve learned another language in school,” says Perez-Cortes, who recently earned a 2018 Rutgers–Camden Chancellor’s Award for Civic Engagement for her efforts. “We haven’t prepared these children well enough, but efforts such as this can go a long way in changing that.”

The Haddon Township resident is quick to credit Rutgers–Camden’s focus on civic engagement for helping to get the project off the ground. As she recalls, shortly after arriving at the University in fall 2016, the Civic Engagement Faculty Fellow attended a breakfast bringing together community partners to network and explore potential collaborations.

Perez-Cortes, who had recently graduated from Rutgers University–New Brunswick with a doctorate in bilingualism and second language acquisition, stood and explained how she could share her expertise in bilingual education. By a “stroke of luck,” she says, she was then contacted by Catholic Partnership Schools, which had been discussing the possibility of offering a bilingual preschool program at one of its schools.

“This was all done from scratch,” says Perez-Cortes. “They had been studying the issue on their own, but needed the expertise of someone who was actually doing the work.”

Rather than reinvent the wheel, she says, they agreed to devise a dual language classroom that could be easily instituted and meet the needs of its current students.

To that end, they looked at the current student population and determined that more than 80 percent of the students in pre-K, kindergarten, and first grade were Hispanic and very much dominant in their home language. However, all of their classes were offered in English, making it difficult for them to adjust to the classes and progress to the required academic levels.

“What’s happening then is they really aren’t being served accordingly,” says Perez-Cortes. “Consequently, they are always falling behind, which can have devastating consequences for their subsequent upper-level education, manifested in poor grades and high dropout rates.”

According to the Rutgers–Camden researcher, the task force realized that, since they already had a substantial Hispanic population that needed assistance in Spanish, it made sense to create a program where the majority of the input that the children received was in Spanish at the beginning, and then gradually scaled it back as they get older.

The Rutgers-Camden researcher affirms that the program should be expanded to continue into kindergarten and first grade, and beyond.

Ideally, she adds, the program should be expanded to continue into kindergarten and first grade, and beyond – even up to sixth, seventh, and eighth grades.

“By the time they have gone through the dual language program, they are prepared, they understand what the teachers are saying, and they have an understanding of the academic content that is being taught in class,” explains Perez-Cortes, who notes that it typically takes between four to seven years for a child to catch up in both languages.

To sum it up, she says, if these children receive support in their home language, they can show what they know, instead of being labeled as not being able to keep up with the class.

“Some of these children are very intelligent, however, they don’t have the language to communicate that,” she says. “If you speak to children in their home language, you will see that they are brilliant minds, they are super curious, and they know a lot, but they just couldn’t show that.”

She notes that, from the beginning, they have been intent on including parents in the process. Parents expressed their deep interest in maintaining the home language but didn’t know how to do so. Perez-Cortes and her students thus began hosting professional development gatherings for the parents.

The Rutgers–Camden researcher warns that, when bilingual children aren’t served accordingly, it can have devastating consequences for their upper-level education.

“These are informational sessions to explain to them how to best connect with the child in the home language, which is frequently rejected by the children,” says Perez-Cortes. “Often kids will think it’s ‘not cool’ to speak their home language. However, the parents’ proficiency in English is generally low, so they have trouble communicating in the language. They feel disconnected from what their children are doing in school and that really has an impact on their education.”

Perez-Cortes has also focused on connecting the initiative to her Rutgers–Camden engaged-civic learning course, “Bilingualism in the U.S.,” as well as used data from the initiative to conduct a research project measuring bilingual learners’ linguistic and academic development in English and Spanish. Her students have already begun crafting bilingual lesson plans for first, second, and third graders.

While the bilingual program is still new, and the data is still raw, Perez-Cortes has all the evidence she needs to know that it is working.

“When I go into these classrooms and these children speak to me in Spanish and English and are super proud of it, it means the world to me,” she says. “These children are validated and it shows; they don’t have to hide anymore. It brings tears to my eyes.”

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