Teachers at Foothill Elementary school help Spanish speaking children learn academic skills and make the transition to classes taught in English.

(Story and photos by Kerry Richardson)

In September, 1995, I spent part of two days visiting two first-grade classrooms that are part of the bilingual education program at Foothill Elementary School in Pittsburg, California. This school year, teachers of the two classes are trying a team approach.

Eva Cordova Steffani instructed her class using the Spanish language. Newly enrolling students were placed with her following an evaluation of their ability to speak and understand English. Steffani is a 21-year veteran bilingual teacher. She says that children who enter the bilingual program in kindergarten speaking no English might start reading in English by second grade, and move into a regular classroom for third or fourth grade.

Students with better English language skills were in the class in the next room taught in English by Traci Quesada Wieland. Also, half of Wieland's class are native English speakers. Wieland was born and raised in nearby Antioch, California, and she recalls that her grandmother spoke only Spanish. Her mother is an aide at Foothill school where Wieland herself was an aide until becoming a credentialed teacher through a minority recruitment program.

On Monday morning, Wieland walked with her class to the school library. They spent about 25 minutes there, while students found and checked out books and read at tables. The librarian explained that you must return the library book you have before checking out a new book.

In addition to English titles such as "Old Hat, New Hat," the library has Spanish language titles such as "Los Animales," and "El Clima y Sus Cambios," a book about changes in climate. Student Lupe Gallegos looked at a Spanish language book at the library. Later back at the classroom, he showed me an English language book he had obtained from his Sunday School class.

Classroom activities in Traci Quesada Wieland's class included a class meeting where students sat in a circle and took turns complimenting and thanking each other. The school district has implemented a life skills program emphasizing guidelines such as "doing your best," and "no putdowns." Friendship is considered important.

For their writing assignment the children wrote about one of their classmates, Alexis, who wore a paper crown, having been designated for special attention that day as class queen. On student noted that if you write "Alexis is," the letter "s" is used two times. During class, a parent brought in an alligator puppet that was then used in a sing along. During a show and tell period one girl shared a photo of her father in his police uniform.

At times, some of the students would move to the other classroom for a lesson. Wieland likes working in conjunction with Steffani, and thinks it is good for the children also. "They have two teachers who really really care for them they can go to at any time," she said. At the end of the day as the children left her class, Wieland shook hands and spoke with each student.

On Tuesday morning I observed Eva Cordova Steffani's class being taught in Spanish. Reading and arithmetic were interwoven with singing and a dance break to music from a recording Steffani had found on a vacation in Mexico. Steffani reviewed the days of the week, and the students worked with the number eight. She demonstrated pronunciation including the sound represented by the letter "p" in the word "puma."

Her lesson plan included a sequence about "Papa Manzano" who is known in English as Johnny Appleseed. Steffani showed illustrations of Manzano/Appleseed while explaining the story of the man who travelled from place to place planting the seeds of apples. The students then did craft work involving cutting and pasting paper cutouts of Papa Manzano and apples. After class Steffani explained to me a sympathetic aspect about Johnny Appleseed's character. "He had nothing but he gave of himself," she said.

Steffani believes in her work with the Spanish-speaking children. "In an all-English classroom, they clam up," she said. As for placing children in a classroom where they don't understand the language, she said, "It's cruel!" Steffani explained that some of her students have recently moved to Pittsburg from Mexico, and the culture and environment here are totally new to them, they don't have the same backgrounds as their Anglo counterparts. Steffani is proud of her work. "My kids are happy here," she said.

I visited Foothill Elementary principal Lee Arevalo in his office. He noted that the school district had a growing minority population and many students have parents who speak only Spanish. "We have to come and meet the needs of those students," he said. Arevalo admitted some concern about the current criticism by politicians of bilingual education, but noted that, so far, the program had been able to find funding to continue hiring teacher's aides.

Also, Arevalo had been thinking that, in addition to teaching English to Spanish speaking children, it would be good to offer Spanish to English speakers. "I feel like we're moving in the direction of asking the parents if we can have instruction in Spanish before or after school," he said. "To me, it seems like we've got to do something about how our youngsters grow up feeling about each other as a group. We're not together. Something needs to happen," he said.

Later in the week there was sad news for the teachers and students at Foothill Elementary. Their principal, Lee Arevalo, passed away after suffering a stroke.

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