SELAH, Wash. -- Spanish remains a work in progress for 6-year-old Brianne Hull, who can count to 20 and identify some colors.
“Yo observo verde,” she said Thursday morning as she studied a picture of someone wearing green.
Vehicles are another story. A picture of a school bus stumped her, but classmate Alex Orozco and John Campbell Primary School Principal Rob Darling were there to help. Orozco and Darling speak Spanish, although the principal is more fluent in Portuguese.
“Yo observo el autobus,” they told her — “I see the school bus” — and Brianne repeated it back.
Such is the case in four kindergarten classrooms and four first-grade classrooms in Campbell Primary in Selah, where students learn English and Spanish, half in English and half in Spanish. The students immerse themselves in the languages, hearing only English or only Spanish during certain subjects.
Dual language programs have picked up traction in areas such as in the Yakima Valley, where more than one widely spoken language exists. Selah’s program is entering its second year, while Mabton incorporated its program in the elementary school level this school year. The programs have become a popular option nationally as research suggests learning another language increases academic performance.
Furthermore, the long-term benefits of learning multiple languages, such as staying competitive in an increasingly global workforce and meeting admissions requirements in some colleges and universities, far exceed any downsides.
Opportunities such as those granted to students like Alex and Brianne make Darling jealous, as he learned Spanish while working strawberry fields in Sequim and Portuguese on a mission trip to Brazil.
“I went down to Brazil and that was the first time I experienced that immersion aspect,” he said. “I did it as a 19-year-old kid.
“When you learn it as a grown-up, you are basically translating every word until you are fluent. As a child, you learn it as one language. They make these neural connections when they’re little.”
Growing Hispanic population
Much like other cities and towns in the Valley, Selah’s Hispanic population is growing. In the 2005-06 school year, Hispanics comprised 14 percent of student enrollment. By last school year, the demographic made up 27 percent of the enrollment.
The growth has raised concerns over how to handle students who are learning English. Darling said that whenever a new student who knew little or no English enrolled, panic ensued.
“Before, if you were in our Spanish-speaking program, we didn’t have any way to serve you in a general classroom,” he said. “You would sit there and hope we pulled you out (of the classroom) and gave you support.”
One of the common issues found in K-12 is students learning English have to learn the language as well as everything else, often struggling to manage both. Selah schools wanted to find an answer to this issue, Darling said. Several studies suggest the most effective way to teach English language learners is by some form of dual language model.
Selah chose a two-way model in the 2014-15 school year; two-way dual language is when one teacher instructs entirely in English while another instructs only in Spanish, and students split their school days between the two.
“In kindergarten, first, second (grades) you are learning how to read,” said Darling. “But in 3 through 5, you are learning by reading. If you haven’t learned how to read by then — to look through context to solve problems — that’s when the kids really start to fall apart.”
A 2015 study from the Houston Independent School District and Rice University said of all the models, the two-way option produced the best English and Spanish skills for Houston children. A separate 2014 study from Stanford University showed long-term academic performance for students taught in two languages outperformed peers only taught in English.
“The most immediate reason we have moved to dual language models is the research shows that the trajectory of students who are in dual language programs versus those who do not, students tend to outperform those who aren’t,” said Nelson Flores, a University of Pennsylvania professor who has studied these programs for a decade.
The models have also demonstrated the most effective way to reduce the achievement gap between non-English and English speakers, Flores said.
At Campbell, in Mabton
Campbell Primary has 135 students in its dual immersion programs in kindergarten and first grade; the program will expand into second grade next school year and will continue to expand annually through fifth grade. The K-2 school’s enrollment is about 860 students, making it one of the larger elementary schools in the state.
For a kindergartner or first-grader learning English and Spanish, a day looks something like this:
• English-speaking students learn reading and writing in English, while Spanish speakers learn to read and write in Spanish.
• The group comes back together for math in English, while they receive science and social studies instruction in Spanish.
• Each student has a “bilingual buddy” who can assist the other with the other language. The buddy system makes all the students feel valued, Darling said, as the students become experts of either English or Spanish.
The teachers stay committed to the immersion process. Depending on what day of the week it is, students and staff greet each other in English or Spanish.
First-grade teacher Ana Guizar-Lopez said she tries to speak only in Spanish throughout the entire day, or at least when students are around.
“I try not to break Spanish because I really need to make the message clear with the students,” she said. “If I have other teachers coming in looking for a student, I’ll answer in Spanish.”
“They get immersed in English anywhere else, they have English everywhere,” Guizar-Lopez added. “But Spanish, it’s different, so I just stay with it.”
Mabton is also in the early phases of a dual language program in English and Spanish. This school year, two kindergarten classrooms shifted to the two-way model found in Selah. The percentage of English language learners in the Lower Valley district in 2014-15 was 43 percent, said Superintendent Minerva Morales.
The reasoning for Mabton’s decision is similar, as two-way represents the best model for English learners to grasp the language. Morales said there will be at least one section of the program in each K-6 grade level by the 2022-23 school year.
A preschool program was already in place at Mabton incorporating a two-language model; 80 percent of the instruction is in Spanish and 20 percent in English. The goal there is for students to better familiarize themselves with Spanish as English becomes more prevalent day-to-day.
In kindergarten and first grade in Mabton, students will receive their literacy instruction in their native language, while math will be taught in English and science and social studies in Spanish, Morales said. Preschool holds 20 students and the two kindergarten classrooms hold about 50 students.
In order to be better informed and prepared for the transition, Mabton staff visited schools where dual language was already in place and will continue to do so, Morales said. And just like Selah, the two have Wenatchee School District as a mentor as the programs mature, thanks to a state grant.
Wenatchee has had its own program at one of its elementary schools and middle school for 10 years, said special programs assistant director Cynthia Valdez. The mentorship assists the two districts through site visits, professional development and district-to-district consultation. The two-year state grant is for $100,000 for Mabton and for Selah, while Wenatchee’s two-year grant is for $60,000.
“In the past, dual language has been an unfunded program,” said Valdez. “This is really the first time (state-specific) funds have been available to support and refinance it.”
Across the country
In 2000, there were about 270 dual language programs across the country’s school districts, said David Rogers, executive director of Dual Language Education of New Mexico, a nonprofit that has assisted school districts nationwide with those efforts. That number grew to more than 2,000 in 2011.
There’s no tracking of the programs right now, but “I would suggest in our different experiences, you could safely say it’s above 2,500. It’s a pretty significant increase, and it may be higher,” Rogers said.
Programs vary by community. While programs may consist of English and Spanish in the Yakima Valley, districts like Bellevue incorporate other languages such as Mandarin, depending on their student demographics. And Rogers has seen Navajo pop up as an option in Southwest schools.
Dual Languages of New Mexico has in the last 15 years provided assistance for schools pursuing two-language programs, such as training, site visits, free resources and conferences. Districts the nonprofit has assisted over the years include some in Washington state.
The success of these programs is no surprise to Rogers, as aside from the academic benefits, other positives come into play. It is widely known that learning a language at an earlier age means students are more likely to retain fluency in that language as they develop.
“As you get closer to the age of 7, it becomes harder and harder (to learn a language),” said Rogers. “But if you started learning a second or third or fourth language, it can willingly develop those languages.” He said a child’s brain looks at learning English, Spanish or any other as a method of survival, unlike in adulthood.
Educators have also embraced the programs as methods to give students an edge in the job market. With a more globalized workforce, another language makes more sense, supporters say.
“If you can speak Spanish or English, you can communicate with 80 percent of the world,” Darling said. “When you talk about a global job market, we are talking about them being prepared not just for a local job market, but interact and compete worldwide.”
There can be some controversy with such programs. For instance, some parents just don’t want it for whatever reason. Darling got some complaints from parents over why their children had the option to learn Spanish. Because Selah’s program is not schoolwide, parents can choose one of the other classrooms.
But as Darling said, for every one parent who told him “I don’t want my kid in a Mexican-speaking classroom,” there were several more who wanted their child in one of the classrooms. About 40 students could not get in last school year, while about 100 were denied ww fall, said Darling.
The other predominant issue is a lack of qualified teachers. Whether it is Spanish or another language, there aren’t enough teachers. The U.S. Department of Education lists Washington as having a shortage in bilingual educators for this school year; the same goes for Oregon and Idaho.
The search for bilingual teachers is one of the major efforts of Dual Languages of New Mexico, Rogers said.
“There are a lot of proficient Spanish speakers, Mandarin speakers, Arabic speakers,” he said. “But their universities’ teacher preparation programs do not prepare them to serve in these positions.”
Some districts only half-heartedly adopt dual language programs, Rogers added. In order for students to fully grasp English and the other language, he said it “requires a K-12 commitment.” He compared it to jumping on a “bandwagon” just to say districts have one.
In Mabton, Morales said the district would begin conversations on expanding beyond sixth grade once the rollout intensifies over the next few years. In Selah, fifth grade is where the immersion model will stop for now, but leaders didn’t rule out an expansion.
“We would love to see actual content courses to be offered in Spanish in Selah Middle School and Selah High School and will advocate for that when we get closer to our cohorts being in those buildings,” Darling said.