1. Untitled Chapter
By Camila Molina

Learning in Two Languages

An historic Chapel Hill elementary school explores what could represent the future of education in the U.S.

Learning in Two Languages
An historic Chapel Hill elementary school explores what could represent the future of education in the U.S.

Zuleika Casado’s first-grade class waits attentively. Each student sits on an outlined square on the blue carpet as the lesson for the day appears on the smart board. Above, the numbers 1 through 20 hang on the wall. The day’s lesson is about fractions, specifically the difference between a whole, a half and a quarter. Everything seems typical of a North Carolina elementary classroom, except one thing: It’s all in Spanish.

Casado is from Barcelona, Spain. She is among the one-third of teachers at Frank Porter Graham Bilingüe, in Chapel Hill, that are international teachers.  Frank Porter Graham Elementary existed for 50 years as a monolingual public school, but it converted into a bilingual magnet school during the 2012-13 academic school year. Since then, the school offers two Spanish dual-language tracks that are accessible to both native Spanish and English speakers.


With 18 years of experience working in journalism in Spain, Casado’s decision to become an educator seems unexpected within just this context. But her passion for learning and sharing her experiences reveals the opposite.

“One day I said: I have satisfied my role here,” she said in Spanish. “I want to keep creating things. I want to keep improving. I am going to change. I am going to teach and contribute to form better people. I want to give everything from my experience, everything I can, to help make more critical and global citizens.”

She now has almost seven years of experience in education, as both a teacher and an administrator. Three years ago, she opened a public bilingual school in Barcelona with a team of administrators. In Barcelona, lessons are taught in Catalan, one of the many dialects in Spain, so the students’ second language was Spanish.

The idea of learning other teaching methods and a new philosophy of education attracted her even more to the new bilingual school. “I came here specifically to compare the two systems of education,” she said. “Not only in the classroom as a teacher, but as an administrator, from the outside.”

Several of her kindergarten students from last year comprise this year’s first-grade class.

With more than a year of teaching in the United States under her belt, there are several facets of the American school system Casado said she admires.

“They are two systems completely different. Not one is better or worse — just different.”

At Frank Porter Graham, the institution is open to parents and the community. It gives them an opportunity to participate in students’ education.

Casado also admires the trust the community has in the institution and education. In general, the parents are more willing to help in the classroom and the students are more respectful than in Spain.

“The parents value very much that their children have the opportunity to learn,” she said. “Especially in this school where they can learn a second language. There are a lot of mediums and resources [for the students].”

For all its merits, though, Casado criticized the competitiveness and unit-based instruction of public education in the United States.

“I think that the system here is very instructional,” she said. “There are state tests and district tests. You have to reach this goal. In Spain, it is not as overwhelming like it is here. So, in Spain teaching is more relaxed.”

She used a plant metaphor to describe her philosophy on education.

“When you plant a flower or a plant, the role of the teacher is to accompany the growth. Not force and tell the plant, ‘You must be this tall (she gestures with her hand above her head) with this many flowers and leaves.’ No. ‘You will have your own flowers and your own leaves, and we will accompany you so that that growth will be the best possible.’”

When she returns to Barcelona, Casado said she’s going to work on an administrative level for the district to improve reading and writing. During this position, she would like to connect the two systems so that both districts can share ideas and “criticize each other — in the better sense of the word,” she said.

At the end of the term last year, parents, students and teachers convinced Casado to stay another year at Frank Porter Graham. Casado will return to Barcelona at the end of this academic school year to share all that she has learned about the school’s bilingual system. She said she hopes the United States will continue to build bilingual schools, not only for better professional opportunities but because learning a second language implies that “you have learned a new culture, a new way of thinking, a new way of calling things, a new philosophy.”

Some children in her classrooms are from Spanish-speaking countries, some are children of Spanish-speaking immigrant couples, and others, about half the class, are native English speakers. With different dialects bouncing around the room, the students’ perspective of the language is broadened. She jokes, for example, that although some students may call the color brown café, she calls it marron. The same happens with other words that have different names depending on the student’s origin. They agree that both words are correct and move on.

Some of the students have picked up her quirks. For example, when she wants them to transition from one activity to another she’ll say, “¿Y rapidito, eh? ¡Rapidito!” (And quickly, eh? Quickly!) . When she does not say it, her students remind her. “¿Zuleika, y rapidito ¿no?. ¡Rapidito!”

The display outside of Margarita Robledo’s fourth-grade classroom is an example of the project-based learning encouraged at the school. Students created artwork about regions of North Carolina accompanied by a written description in Spanish.

Photo by Kristi Stout.

Before it became a magnet school, Frank Porter Graham  had one dual-language class for each grade level. Now, the entire school functions as dual-language. 

Two teachers work as a team to instruct their class. While half the class learns about reading and writing in Spanish, in the classroom next door the other learns about math and science in English. Then the classes switch later in the day.

The language switch during the day is called bridging. Key vocabulary concepts are put next to each other so students have a visual of how it looks in both Spanish and English. Doing so helps students distinguish the similarities and differences between the languages. Students also apply concepts learned during the unit of study in the other language. 

“Children don’t think like adults,” said Melody Wharton, the literacy coach at the school. “Adults can say something and think about how it looks and sounds, or use part of a word to figure out how it looks in the other language. Children can’t do that. They have to be taught how to do that.”

The year FPG became a magnet school was the same year Northside Elementary School opened in Chapel Hill. A mass redistricting of students occurred across the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools district. The native Spanish speakers at FPG were allowed to stay while the native English speakers already at FPG were given first priority to the available seats over other students across the district.

To attend a magnet school, parents must enter their child into a lottery in the district that will randomly choose students every academic school year. Students that attend FPG elect to go to the school, whereas students who opt not to go to a magnet school, and instead are zoned to go to a regular public school, are assigned which one to attend.

FPG Principal Emily Bivins said its transition from a public school to a magnet school caused some controversy because parents were not happy their children were being redistricted so other students across the district could be served. Some parents were not interested in dual-language.

The first dual-language program in the CHCCS district was offered at Carrboro Elementary, where Bivins served as assistant principal and later as principal. Not all classes were dual-language. Interest in the dual-language program at Carrboro was greater than the supply, so the administration began advocacy work to expand the program.

“This is my dream come true for public education,” Bivins said. “I think it takes all we know about good teaching and learning, collaboration with the community and families and puts it all in one place. It’s an opportunity to prove that public education can educate all children, if you do it the way that it needs to be done.”

The goal of FPG is that all students become bilingual, biliterate and that they develop cross-cultural competence. The curriculum is integrated, meaning that there is a connection to what they are reading and writing about to what is happening globally. They also read and write about what they are learning about in their other classes. The students use experiential learning, which helps them connect vocabulary they might not recognize in the second language.

Some teachers are international teachers on a three- to five-year exchange program, some grew up here in a bilingual home, and others are monolingual teachers. 

There are two programs. In the first, an immersion track, the amount of Spanish instruction decreases over the years, from 90 percent in kindergarten to 50 percent by third grade. The other program, the fifty-fifty track, is fifty percent of Spanish instruction for all grade levels. In both tracks, half the students are native English speakers, and the other half are native Spanish speakers. .

“Regardless [of the program] there is less proficiency in Spanish than in English, because we live in an English-dominant society,”  Wharton said. “Even our Spanish speakers come knowing a lot more English than our English speakers come knowing Spanish.”

Wharton says at least half of the population of FPG is a second-language learner.

“So the way you teach has to be different,” she says. “You have to be able to scaffold sufficiently so that students who don’t know the language can understand you. But, you have to maintain the rigor so that the students who do aren’t bored.”

“One of the challenges in the United States,” Bivins said, is that “we’re one of the few countries that still supports monolingualism.”

After a lesson, students return to their tables to apply what they have just learned. Casado assists a student by asking her questions about the lesson. Casado’s teaching philosophy emphasizes guiding students in helping them reach goals, instead of forcing them to reach goals set for them.

Photo by Kristi Stout.

One day, a parent of a native English-speaking student came up to Margarita Robledo, a fourth-grade Spanish teacher, and said, “My son, if he doesn’t learn Spanish, you (Spanish speakers) are going to come and take all the job positions.” Robledo agrees. 

She said she believes FPG is reflective of the growing necessity to continue bilingual education.

As her students work independently on the school laptops, Robledo walks between the desks to make sure her students are on task. A few minutes later, she addresses her class ¿Clase?. In unison they respond Sí, sí, and begin to clean up. They transition onto the carpet, where the next lesson – the importance of citing text – begins.

Robledo, an international teacher from Bogotá, Colombia, has three years of experience working in the United States. Before FPG she worked at Carrboro Elementary in the dual-language program. For 16 years she worked as an English teacher in Bogotá at an International Baccalaureate school, a private British bilingual school.

“That’s why I was interested in this program,” Robledo said in Spanish. “It was the most similar to IB. Without being an IB school, this program of dual-language — where there’s project-based learning and bilingualism — is very similar to what I used to do in Colombia. What I didn’t expect was having to do it in Spanish.”

In Bogotá she was always the local teacher, the bridge between the Spanish speakers and the foreigners at the school.

“There you were always the support,” she says. “But to be the opposite is a completely new experience. It has been very enriching.”

However, teaching here has been harder than in Colombia, she said. The greatest difficulty of teaching in her fourth grade class is that all of the resources for teaching the curriculum are in English. For example, students in the fourth grade learn about the Native Americans and North Carolina. There are no resources or textbooks in Spanish on those topics. So she translates the resources she finds, or she makes her own resources. 

International teachers not only bring their native language, but also their culture. Robledo shares her memories about Colombia and her knowledge about the world. She said she found it surprising how little her students knew about the rest of the world.

“But I take them outside of here. I tell them, ‘You are not America. America is a continent that is divided into three.’”

Robledo admires that the school emphasizes the importance of the maternal language of Hispanics. In her opinion, the socioeconomic factor is a barrier that impedes Latinos’ academic achievement compared to their other classmates. She is also grateful, she said, that students are receiving bilingual education for free. The only reason she worked in Colombia was to pay for her children’s bilingual education.

“To be able to have this level of public education is a marvel,” she said. “I constantly remind the parents and students, ‘You guys are very fortunate, because in my country I had to pay a lot of money for my kids to learn two languages.’” 

She believes that FPG is a positive influence in the Latino and American communities, that individuals have realized that there is not much of a difference between the two. “The difference is attitude.”

In Casado’s first-grade class, students engage in the lesson by answering questions in Spanish. Students at Frank Porter Graham are taught the North Carolina public school curriculum in Spanish and English. However, they take state and district assessments only in English.

Photo by Kristi Stout.

As Robledo and other bilingual teachers have experienced, many of the resources, materials and expectations in CHCCS and North Carolina are designed for monolingual education. All state assessment measures are based on a monolingual model, for example, even though the students receive a bilingual education.

North Carolina is among the majority of states that allow bilingual education – currently, California, Arizona and Massachusetts ban it outright. But out of 115 school districts statewide, only 26 have dual-language programs – 94 schools total.

The general arguments against bilingual education are those that wholly support English as the dominant world language. ProEnglish, a national interest group that advocates the adoption of English as the official language of all levels of government, says that bilingual education prevents non-English speaking students from high academic achievement because English instruction is delayed. Ending bilingual education is included in the group’s agenda. They supported an “English for the Children” initiative that banned bilingual education in the three states mentioned before. 

At Frank Porter Graham, Principal Emily Bivins said families sometimes do not see the benefits of a bilingual education. Other times families think such a system might be too hard for the child, or that they will not be able to provide support in the second language at home, or they simply might prefer a more homogenous environment. 

But Wharton, the literacy coach, argues that bilingual education should be the only type of public education offered in the United States.

“Worldwide we are putting our citizens at a disadvantage by not teaching them more than one language. Other countries, like Germany, for example, (teach) three languages, four languages — that’s the norm. Sweden, three to five languages — that’s the norm. We can’t get by on one anymore, especially with how small the world is becoming. I think that the language of power is English, but I don’t think it will always be that. I think that if our country is wanting to stay in the kind of power it has, its citizens need to be able to become bilingual, at the very least, to be able to interact with other countries and citizens of other countries.”

Resistance to bilingual education in the United States can be attributed to institutionalized racism, she said. 

 “So much of our world is politicized around issues of immigration and whether we should be a monolingual country that it gets brought into the school setting,” Bivins said.

Bivins said she thinks families that reside legally or illegally in the country will be irrelevant 20 years from now. Illegal immigration is not going to go away. Ten years ago, Bivins said noticed the first wave of immigration in the education system in North Carolina. Now, schools are receiving “generation-and-a-half” kids (children of parents who were not born here, but they were).

“Those are the kids who are citizens of the United States, and they are here,” Bivins said. “And they are bilingual. Those are going to be the people buying groceries, and getting their hair cut, and applying for loans at the bank and all the other jobs and consumers that our culture will have 20 years from now.”

If educators adopted this mindset, she said, there would be a greater demand to train bilingual teachers. 

Photo by Kristi Stout.

Next door to Casado’s classroom, in María Villaroel’s kindergarten Spanish classroom, students decorate their umbrella cut-outs. Earlier that day, they learned vocabulary associated to spring. I sit next to Tómas, who is blond and fair-skinned. Together we pick out colors for his umbrella. He pulls out a peach-colored crayon from the basket. He asks me, “How do you say this color in Spanish?” 

I hesitate because I can’t think of the word for peach in Spanish. He answers his own question, color piel (skin color). I tell him we can’t use that phrase to label the color of the crayon. Then I ask him if all skin is peach color.

He responds by pulling out a brown crayon. “Some skin is this color,” he said. He tells me it would not be right to label the peach crayon as skin color because not all skin is that color.

Tómas returns the two crayons to the basket and switches back to his original purple, all thoughts of skin colors already behind him. Peach or brown or purple, they’re all the same to him – just colors mixing in the communal basket on his desk.

He colors on.