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Frank Porter Graham Elementary School to fully convert to dual-language

Kelly Serrano, a Latina mother with three sons in dual-language classes at Frank Porter Graham Elementary School, loves that her children are taught in her native language.

“When the program first started five years ago, my son was in kindergarten, and there were a lot of issues,” she said. “But now it’s great — they can learn English and our language.”

In August, Frank Porter Graham will fully convert to a dual-language magnet school based on a model in which students spend the majority of their time using a foreign language.

The move — which officials hope will make the school a world-class institution — has many local parents concerned about the program’s accessibility and quality.

But experts worry that amidst these concerns, the true aim of dual-language education programs has blurred in light of wealthy white parents looking for an edge and educators who fail to connect with language minority students.

David Thomas, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, said dual-language programs have been around since the 1960s, when Miami’s Cuban community advocated for two-way immersion program at Coral Way Elementary.

Claudia Cervantes-Soon, an assistant professor in the UNC School of Education, said these programs began as a response to language minority groups demanding the right to be educated in their native language and history.

“In traditional ESL programs, language minority students were being segregated,” she said. “By putting native speakers and minorities together in the classroom, minorities were empowered — the goal was not just fluent English, it was being bilingual.”

She said places that don’t have a history of bilingual education, like North Carolina, struggle to properly serve the minority students for whom the programs were developed.

“On one side you have poor immigrants, some of whom are undocumented and all of whom are grateful for anything you can give them in their native language,” Cervantes-Soon said. “On the other side we have rich, educated, white families who want to give their children an edge.”

Misha Becker, an associate professor in the UNC Department of Linguistics, said dual-language education at the elementary school level helps with language-acquisition, creativity, memory and problem-solving skills.

“Children of immigrants are also more likely to stay in school and finish their high school diploma if they are taught in both English and their native language,” she said.

But Cervantes-Soon said in the dual-language classrooms she has observed in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, Latino students rarely participate.

“Latino children are very disenfranchised and know that at the end of the day, the language of status is English,” she said.

She said the problem is exacerbated by wealthy white parents and highly educated teachers — immigrants from places such as Venezuela — who struggle to connect with language minority students.

These hallmarks of dual-language education in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools make the goals of mutual linguistic skill development and cross-cultural understanding difficult to achieve, she said.

Despite these concerns, Serrano said she hopes to keep her children in the program.

She said that she can speak to her sons in Spanish, but she would not have time to teach them the reading and writing skills they learn in school.

“When I go to the classrooms I see Spanish-speaking kids struggling to communicate with English-speakers, and it’s nice when they can go ahead and express themselves in Spanish and be understood,” Serrano said.

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