By Leonel Sanchez
Lemon Grove Middle School took a gamble last year when it set out to turn a perceived weakness among its students into a strength.
The school – which has a large number of low-income, native Spanish-speaking students – began offering Advanced Placement Spanish, a college-level course usually taken by high school juniors and seniors.
Lemon Grove is the only San Diego County school teaching AP Spanish to sixth-, seventh-and eighth-grade students. The school's goal is to help these students see that they can handle a rigorous academic class and encourage them to take AP courses in other subjects in high school.
“There's no reason for them not to perform well,” said Silvia Saña, who teaches AP Spanish at Lemon Grove Middle School.
Nearly all of Saña's 35 students in the elective course are native Spanish speakers, born in Mexico or the children of Mexican immigrants who speak Spanish at home.
Lemon Grove Middle School Principal Ambler Moss said he started the class to give native Spanish speakers a chance to succeed in an academically demanding course where their fluency is an advantage. Their first language is often seen as a barrier to learning in a predominantly English school environment, Moss said. He wants to change that.
“This gives them confidence,” Moss said, particularly for students who are struggling in other classes. “We're turning a historical disadvantage into an economic and intellectual asset.”
“To be fully bilingual, not just talking kitchen Spanish with Grandma but be fully literate in more than one language – that is an asset.”
The Lemon Grove AP Spanish class, which cost about $10,000 a year to fund, is paying off already for students like Abigail Coronado, 13. Abigail wasn't sure she was ready to take the class at first.
“I heard only college and high school students took it,” she said. “I thought it must be hard.”
Abigail has been getting a B+ so far and is looking forward to taking the AP Spanish exam in May.
“I realized, I can do this,” Abigail said.
Education experts believe native Spanish speakers can take AP Spanish in middle school because they are fluent in the language already and understand Spanish culture.
Around San Diego County, other middle schools offer rigorous Spanish classes, though without the AP designation. San Diego Unified offers advanced Spanish classes beginning in the sixth grade at Memorial Middle School in Barrio Logan and the Language Academy in the College Area.
AP Spanish uses curriculum developed by the New York-based College Board, which oversees the AP program. It is comparable to a college-level Spanish composition and conversation class. Students usually are required to have basic knowledge of the language and culture of Spanish-speaking people.
The College Board allows AP Spanish in middle schools largely because of the success of Texas schools that teach the course. A few Texas middle schools began teaching it in 1999. Nearly 90 taught it last year.
Eight in 10 of the Texas middle school students who took the AP Spanish test in 2006 scored 3 or higher, the mark needed to earn credits at many colleges and universities, said Kelly Callaway, Texas Education Agency's director of advanced academics. Many continue to take AP courses in other subjects in high school, Callaway said.
Lemon Grove will be among the schools across the nation that offer the AP Spanish test May 5.
Nationwide, there has been a push in recent years to enroll more low-income students – blacks and Latinos in particular – in high school AP classes, where they have historically been underrepresented.
Around the county, 20 districts, including San Diego, Oceanside, Sweetwater and Grossmont, participate in the Advanced Placement Consortium Project, which has helped to increase enrollment of low-income students in AP courses in high schools by 33 percent, project director Brenda Hall said. Participating middle schools prepare students to take AP courses in high school but don't offer them, Hall said.
In high school, Latino students who take AP courses often pick AP Spanish. Last year in California, more than half of the high school students who took the AP Spanish test were Mexican-American. Their mean score was higher than that of any other racial and ethnic group, according to College Board statistics.
In Lemon Grove, Saña, the AP Spanish teacher, is helping her students expand their vocabulary and improve their grammar, reading and writing, which will be key when they take the AP Spanish test.
She recently prepared them to read a lengthy Spanish article about the economic crisis in the United States by organizing a mock news conference in which students played reporters and she was the president.
Students asked about el plan de rescate, (rescue plan) and el paquete de medidas de estimulo para la economia (economic stimulus package) and other terms they would likely encounter reading the assigned article.
Katia Jimenez, 13, asked lots of questions and felt good about it after the class ended.
“I'm going to feel proud when I tell my kids someday that I took an AP class in middle school,” Katia said.
Source: San Diego Union-Tribune