The red necklace Mrs. Gonzalez wore on the first Wednesday of class meant it was a Spanish day. The calendar showed Septiembre. Piled before her on the rug in blue and gold uniforms, Nieve Gonzalez’s new kindergarteners gazed at the pictures of animals she showed them.
“He’s licking his fur,” one boy said of a white dog.
“El perro blanco,” Gonzalez replied, bringing the conversation back to the day’s language. Not all the kids understood Spanish, but that was the point.
Gonzalez, a special education teacher, leads one of two new dual language programs at P.S. 112 in East Harlem. What separates her class from any other–in New York and in the country–is that it’s the first for students with autism spectrum disorders like autism and Asperger’s syndrome.
Until this year, students arriving with little English at the unassuming school were placed in programs that began in Spanish and steadily pushed them towards English fluency. Now, regardless of the tongue they speak at home, kindergarteners in the school’s new dual language classes take half their classes in English, half in Spanish.
The goal is fluency in both by fifth grade. “If we’re learning the word ‘bastillo,’ ‘stem,’ the teachers will begin the next day with ‘stem,’” said P.S. 112’s Vice Principal Carmen Colon. Different colored necklaces signal different languages.
While both of P.S. 112’s new classes integrate special and regular-needs children, only Gonzalez’s is open to autistic learners. When her students returned to class Thursday morning, it would be September again. Gonzalez, wearing a blue necklace, would greet them with “Good morning”–instead of “Buenos dias”– before continuing the animal lesson in English.
Although 89 city schools offered dual language programs last year, P.S. 112’s existing autism and bilingual classes made it a logical home for the new program, Principal Eileen Reiter explained. It already had extensive English as a second language offerings, as well as classes that integrated students with and without special needs.
In March, administrators and teachers began attending conferences, developing curriculum and purchasing materials with $40,000 in city grants. They also worked closely with Angelica Infante, executive director of the education department’s Office of English Language Learners and a strong advocate for dual language instruction.
“We need to prepare our children to compete in our global society,” said Infante. “The world is smaller, and we need to give our kids that edge. We haven’t done that enough for autistic kids and kids with disabilities.”
Researchers have already established the far-ranging benefits of bilingual education. In April, the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development published a study finding that bilingual children can alternate between tasks more easily.
But only recently have educators moved to combine the dual language with special education classrooms. The Journal of Autism and Development Disorders recently published two studies debunking the idea that studying languages could impair autistic children’s learning.
“Even for children with disabilities, we have research showing that bilingualism can help,” said Catherine Crowley, director of the Bilingual Extension Institute at Columbia Teachers College.
A certified teacher in a well-integrated dual language program, Crowley said, “is going to have a much better idea which students need special education and which ones are just acquiring language skills.”
Natalia Aredondo, the special education teacher in P.S. 112’s other dual language class, read her students “David Va Al Colegio” that same Wednesday. Aredondo, who came to America from Colombia with few English skills herself, now has state certification to teach special education with a bilingual-special extension.
The combination of special and regular-education students “is meeting the needs of both,” said Aredondo. “It’s that extra level that makes it more challenging.”
Students occasionally caught their teachers speaking the wrong language of the day, said Jessica Franco, Aredondo’s general education counterpart. “I’ve even noticed that when we’re speaking naturally in Spanish, they’ll speak Spanish too.”
Izabel Raupp put her son Anthony on the waitlist for the dual language classes at P.S. 112 after an information session for parents this summer. Raupp, who comes from Brazil and speaks Portuguese to her son, sees a trilingual future for him. Not only will he communicate better, she says, but “it’ll also increase the chances of him understanding the importance of people who speak other languages.”
While Anthony doesn’t have special needs, Raupp believes her son’s autistic classmates will be good influences. “He’ll understand that everyone is different,” she said.
“Children of my daughter’s age are like sponges,” said Fatima Flores-Goya, who went to P.S. 112 herself. Despite being the child of Ecuadorian immigrants, Flores-Goya had to work hard to learn Spanish. Her father had the opposite experience, benefiting from immersing himself in the English language. He’s now a top Police Department accountant, and she’s happy her daughter Isabella can experience the same immersion — in a public school.
Aredondo, Isabella’s new teacher, echoed this sentiment. “You really need to pay a lot of money” for a comparable language program in Colombia, she said. “But this is a public program. And the kids are going to be able to speak with a lot of other people.”