Mimi Thompson's kindergarten class is relaxed and socially uninhibited. She refers to her 25 students as "friends" and speaks to them in Spanish and English.
Here, in Thompson's class at Joseph Perry School in Huntington Beach, blond-headed Anglo children learn alongside brown-eyed Spanish-speaking children. At the tender age of 5, these children are learning to tumble cultural barriers.
More importantly, educators at the school say, these enthusiastic children are learning each other's languages while strengthening their own.
Perfect, Accent-Free Spanish
Thompson, an educator for 14 years and a bilingual teacher for the past four, was born in Mexico City and lived there until she was 13. Her Spanish is perfect and accent-free. Because she was educated in a bilingual setting, Thompson can easily switch from English to Spanish, and back again, without expending so much as an extra breath.
"It makes it easy for me because I don't have to think about it (speaking Spanish). I couldn't imagine struggling because you have to be so spontaneous as it is," she said Thursday morning while her spirited students roamed the playground during their recess.
"Besides, I think it is very important that they hear the proper accent in both languages so that they can learn them correctly," Thompson said.
Before recess, the 13 Latino and 12 Anglo students had already gone through their shapes (Thursday was triangles) and music classes. Everything was taught in both languages.
"I'm very proud of my little helpers," Thompson told the group after most had paid attention to a short lecture.
"\o7 Pero, Ricky, necesitamos escuchar\f7 (But, Ricky, we need to listen)," she kindly warned the little black-haired boy in the red T-shirt.
U.S. Education Secretary William J. Bennett, in a speech Thursday, said that there is "no evidence" that children have benefited from federal bilingual education programs.
However, Thompson and officials at Perry School, which offers bilingual classes for one section of the kindergarten and another for first-graders, said that their program is actually smoothing the transition for Latino children to blend into the English language and culture. As implemented by the Huntington Beach City School District, any class in which at least 10 students speak a non-English language as their primary language, a bilingual teacher will be assigned.
Other Programs Available
But Pat Wrenn, the education facilitator at the school, said that other programs are made available to Spanish-speaking children who may be in a class that has fewer than 10 foreign-language speakers.
"I think it is important for the children to be comfortable in their native language, but they also learn English . . . because they have to if they are going to live here," Thompson said. "It makes the transition much easier. Many of these children learn very quickly and by first grade they are already in an English reading class."
The key to Thompson's success seems to be the easy and free manner she has in conducting her class.
"We're all friends here. Kindergarten is a social setting and the children have no language or cultural barriers. And that's very important. We are just one big, happy classroom," she said.
Although Thompson's class has been in session but three weeks, she said that her students have picked up the bilingual educational system quickly and are thriving in it. She said that favorable comments have been expressed to her by both Anglo and Latino parents.
English Students Benefit
"Some of the parents are saying that their kids have learned so much English already. And the other parents are saying: 'I can't believe they are coming home knowing so many Spanish words,' " Thompson said.
John Magnuson, the school principal, also expressed support for the school's bilingual education program and said that English-speaking students are benefiting as much as their Spanish-speaking classmates.
"I think Anglo parents are really recognizing their children's desire to know more than one language," he said.
Becky Turrentine, the school district's coordinator of educational services, said that the program "is working beautifully" and could hardly be improved at Perry School.
"I feel that bilingual education gives the students respect and knowledge for each other's language and culture. Everyone comes out winning and with an appreciation for the other's culture," Turrentine said.
One mother, whose English-speaking son is in Thompson's class, said that she was happy to see him enjoying and learning from bilingual education.
"I think that if they are bilingual, they will be better adults," said the mother, who declined to be identified.
Tracy Rowe, mother of Jason Rowe, also said that her son was enjoying the bilingual class under Thompson.
"He seems to really like it. At the beginning, I didn't know if I wanted him in the class. But he's adjusted well and he tries to say the Spanish words for a lot of things. He's really taken to it," Rowe said.
Ricky Vega is one of the youngsters in Thompson's class who already has a bilingual setting at home, but he admitted that Spanish was his most proficient language.
"I like Spanish better, but I like English now, too," he said.
Blond Timothy Anderson, the most animated and vociferous in the enthusiastic kindergarten class, is enjoying the bilingual education during his first year in school.
"It's fun and I like it," he said. "And I can go home and say Spanish words to my mother that she doesn't know."
His mother, Renee Anderson, agreed.
"I think it's a good idea. It's got to help. He really enjoys it and I notice he knows a lot of Spanish words," Anderson said.