AUSTIN — Students trying to learn English and those who already speak the language are typically separated into different classrooms at most schools.

But a dual language immersion program state lawmakers approved this session will pair those children together in an effort to help all of them become bilingual.

The six-year pilot program will be tried out in up to 10 Texas public school districts and 30 campuses.

Lawmakers who supported the bill say it tries to address the reality of Texas schools.

More than 40 percent of first-graders in the state’s largest urban school districts — Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth — had limited proficiency in English.

“If we don’t educate the children, we’re not going to have a viable work force, and if we don’t have a viable and educated work force, we’re not going to be attractive to the economic development that our state leaders continue to say that Texas is all about,” said Jesse Romero, a San Antonio-based legislative consultant for the Texas Association For Bilingual Education.

Instead of waiting until high school, children who already speak English can start learning another language when they are younger and more adept at doing so, said House Public Education Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands.

“We know that dual language works, but we have failed to articulate the benefits of placing native English speakers in dual language programs,” said Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, sponsor of the Senate version of the bill. “They will learn Spanish or some other language, becoming bilingual and biliterate. When they are little, you can do that.”

But others say the pilot program will turn students into lab rats and worry it will dilute the need to master English.

“I think we are worshipping at the feet of diversity,” said Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball. “There’s nothing wrong with diversity, but to minimize English as the primary language of this nation is a mistake, and I think it's a mistake for our kids. Kids need to master the English language, period.”

At Cedar Brook Elementary in the Spring Branch school district, dual language immersion programs have been successful, said former principal Catherine Robinson. After obtaining a federal grant to try a dual language program, preliminary results indicate the school will be ranked exemplary after two years of recognized ratings.