Inter-American School was an exciting environment--one in which all students learned to be bilingual and biliterate. The school's consistent instructional strategies and its language development program were both supported by a curricular emphasis on the history and culture of its students.. The school's program was implemented by a strong bilingual faculty and staff and employed a structure that actively involved parents in the education of their children.
Inter-American at a Glance
The Inter-American curriculum was built around broad district goals and tailored to fit the cultural background of its students. The school emphasized study of the Americas and included the study of Africa, especially of ways African history and culture have influenced the Americas. Grade level teachers worked together to develop their curriculum around special themes; for example, the fourth grade teachers planned their curriculum together and used social studies-based themes to formulate eight thematic units per year.
In Inter-American's language arts classes, Whole Language strategies that call for students to use language in a natural context were balanced with more traditional language arts strategies that focus on developing decoding skills and automaticity in reading. Teachers used the Whole Language approach to provide opportunities for students to use language in ways that reflect real-world purposes and functions and are authentically related to their life experiences. Teachers modeled complex language and students were encouraged to keep journals, write, illustrate, and publish their writing.
In addition, teachers at all grade levels made use of Writers' Workshop strategies. As part of the Writers' Workshop, students drafted papers, sought out peer edits from their fellow students and met with their editor to discuss the edits, revised their work, and submitted a draft to the teacher for feedback before finalizing the paper. Students learned that writing is a process and that giving and receiving feedback are important steps in that process. By fourth grade, students were becoming mature writers.
Cooperative learning strategies were also used throughout the school. Students worked in groups of three, four, or more on a variety of projects and activities. They learned to work collaboratively and to look to their fellow students as resources in the learning process. Teachers typically formed heterogeneous groups across gender, dominant language, and content-area strength. Students were able to carry out activities on their own and remain on task.
Teachers at all grade levels had been trained in each of these strategies and implemented them as appropriate at each grade level. Almost all Inter-American students remained from kindergarten through grade eight. Because of the consistency of strategies and the stability of the student population, students in the study's target grades--four through six--exhibited a sophisticated mastery of the Inter-American approach to writing as well as cooperative learning. The students' ability to work independently gave teachers the freedom to work with particular students or with individual groups with the knowledge that the remainder of the class would concentrate on their work.
At all grade levels, English-dominant and Spanish-dominant students were assigned to classrooms in roughly equal proportions. Inter-American's language development program began in pre-kindergarten with core subjects taught in Spanish to all students. Spanish-dominant students received ESL instruction and English-dominant students received instruction in Spanish as a second language (SSL). The ratio of Spanish to English instruction remained at 80/20 through third grade, with all core subjects continuing to be taught in Spanish. English instruction increased gradually in the middle grades up to eighth grade, at which point instruction was divided equally between the two languages.
Inter-American required all teachers to be bilingual. More than half the teachers were native Spanish speakers; the others had excellent Spanish language skills. The native Spanish-speaking teachers exhibited the cultural diversity of their LEP students and the Spanish-fluent English-dominant teachers served as excellent role models for English-only students. Inter-American recruited new teachers primarily from the ranks of their former student teachers.
Teachers at each grade level coordinated their instructional activities to ensure articulation across grade levels. Within each grade level, they planned their team teaching activities and thematic units. Teachers had time built into their schedule for these collaborative activities as well as for staff development.
Inter-American staff had adopted the portfolio assessment process to assess student work and were using portfolios in conjunction with teacher-designed tests. Many teachers relied almost entirely on the portfolio system. Teachers had participated in a series of staff development activities with experts on alternative assessment and had requested continuing training in this area.
The school had implemented site-based management; instructional and budget decisions were made at the school level by three standing committees. The Local School Council (LSC), a site-level governing body mandated by the state, was made up of eleven members representing school staff, parents, and the community. The LSC set school policies, was responsible for hiring and evaluating the principal, was involved in interviewing teachers, and controlled both the discretionary and categorical budgets. The Professional Personnel Advisory Committee, composed of the whole faculty, determined schoolwide priorities and was responsible for the instructional program. The Parent Advisory Committee, a voluntary parent organization in which all parents were eligible for membership, represented the organized voice of the parents to the school staff and to the LSC. In addition, the PAC coordinated parent volunteers and organized fundraising efforts.
Inter-American parents were involved in all aspects of school life. Parents participated in governance through the LSC and the PAC and volunteered to participate in a variety of school activities. Parents were engaged in the classroom--for example, two or three parents visited one fourth grade class regularly--and sometimes led instruction. Other parents provided support for the non-instructional part of the teachers' work in order to free up teacher time for instructional tasks. The staff put a great deal of effort into making the school an inclusive community.
Inter-American School designed a uniquely successful bilingual learning environment. Its strength rests in the ability of the staff to sustain a vision of a school that values and celebrates the culture of all its students, promotes bilingualism and biliteracy for all of its students, and holds high expectations for all students.