Best of both worlds
DILLON VALLEY – Kendra Carpenter’s classroom at Dillon Valley Elementary School looks just like any other kindergarten classroom in any other school district, with one fundamental difference: Every word in the room is written in Spanish. This year is the first for Dillon Valley’s Dual Immersion Academy, a bilingual program being implemented among the school’s three kindergarten classes. The program teaches students their native language for 70 percent of the day and their secondary language for the remaining 30 percent.Gayle Jones Westerberg has been the principal at Dillon Valley for five years; before that, she served as the principal of Silverthorne Elementary for 10 years. Both Silverthorne and Dillon have seen their Hispanic populations nearly double since 2000, to the point where Spanish-speaking children outnumber English-speaking ones.There are similar programs in more than 330 schools nationwide, including Pioneer Elementary in Boulder and Crawford Elementary in Aurora. Jones Westerberg has been investigating dual-language programs for nearly a decade, involving consultants and the Dillon Valley staff two years ago. “With about 50 percent of our population being second-language learners, we were a good candidate for this program,” she said. The program will be added at each successive grade level in the coming years until all five grade levels are involved.
In the classroomThe day starts at 8:45 a.m. with homeroom, in which English and Spanish-speakers are mixed. Then the children are split along language lines until lunchtime for math and literacy instruction. After lunch, the groups remain split for more instruction before being mixed again for the “specials”: Art, gym or music, instructed in English. The groups are segregated again to learn their secondary language, then mixed at the end of the day for a period taught in either language, depending on the schedule.The foundation of the program is the “theory of transfer,” which states that if students learn to read and write in their primary language, those skills can be more easily transferred to a second language while children are young. Leslie Davison is a Spanish teacher at Dillon Valley Elementary. She works with multiple grade levels, but has been particularly interested in the effects of language instruction in kindergarten.
“I don’t even think they realize that they’re learning a second language,” Davison said. “If one student doesn’t understand something, they’ll explain it to the other, but not because they think it’s in a different language. It’s, ‘Oh, Johnny didn’t understand what the teacher was saying,’ just as if they were in a regular English-speaking classroom, and they come up with another way to say it.”In the past, classes were mixed all day, with instruction entirely in English. Most schools follow such a model, often because of a lack of resources to do otherwise. The programs help Spanish-speakers learn English quickly, but overall the model doesn’t allow for the greatest chances of success. “The children are eager to learn, but because of their inhibitions in a second language, often that (eagerness) isn’t expressed and some of (their) talents can be overlooked,” Jones Westerberg said.Carpenter, who teaches in Spanish, has seen a large discrepancy between the enthusiasm of her Spanish-speaking students in this new program and before.”In the homogeneous groupings, I feel like I can take my Spanish speakers further,” she said. “They’re not struggling to get basic skills and a language. They’re going to show growth a lot faster, because they’re able to get (instruction) in a language they understand.”
There have been unforeseen benefits as well, namely breaking down some of the language barriers that may have prevented friendships between students in the past.Resort industry worker Kevin Clarke and his family live outside the Dillon Valley district, 12 miles north of town, but when he learned of the dual-immersion plan he leaped at the chance to enroll his daughter Brianna, 6, in Carpenter’s kindergarten class.Clarke grew up in predominantly Hispanic Taos, N.M., but wasn’t able to take Spanish classes until junior high, which he thought was “ridiculous.” Today, he said 60 percent of the employees where he works are Spanish-speakers.”Being able to communicate makes the community better, it makes everybody better,” he said. “When we had the opportunity we were like, ‘OK, if we have to drive her to school five days a week for the next five years, that’s the way it’s going to be.'” Mike Morris can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 223, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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