Demand exceeds supply for bilingual education in Eagle County district
eagle county correspondent
AVON ” Marcy Donovan said she has always been envious of the Spanish-speaking students at Avon Elementary School because they were taught a second language.
So when the predominantly Hispanic school announced it will offer two dual-language kindergarten classes in the fall, the Wildridge resident was quick to enroll her youngest son, Sean, in the program.
“As Americans, we don’t always have that opportunity to start (learning a language) so early in our formal education,” Donovan said.
New Principal Melisa Rewold-Thuon said part of the reason for implementing a dual-language program was to “create a program that would draw the Anglo population back to the school.” More and more of the English-speakers in Avon’s boundaries have been trying to enroll their children in Edwards Elementary School, where a similar dual-language program was implemented five years ago.
“Parents want their children to have the experience of language learning,” Rewold-Thuon said. “They see it as an added value for their child’s education. I think that’s the appeal to the community.”
After a slow start, Edwards’ program became so successful a lottery system was instituted to select students.
“We’ve grown into it,” said Emily Larsen, Edwards Elementary’s grant coordinator and a founder of its dual-language program. “It took a few years before people, I think, felt comfortable with the program.”
Once the program began, there was talk about trying it out at other schools, Rewold-Thuon said.
“We have a good advantage because I am the president of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Educators … so I have background in language programs and dual language,” Rewold-Thuon said. “So with me being the new principal, it’s easy for me to implement this new program and oversee them.”
All but two of the English-speaking parents enrolling their children in Avon’s dual-language kindergarten classes were on Edwards Elementary’s waiting list, she said.
Students in the program will be taught in their nonnative language for half of their classroom time and spend the other half learning in their native language. Teachers will introduce new concepts in the students’ native language, and then they will be split into mixed groups of native Spanish and English-speakers.
“Everything is so visual and hands-on (in kindergarten) that it’s pretty easy for kids to understand the concepts, even if it’s not their native language,” Rewold-Thuon said.
Learning a second language benefits students both academically and socially. Larsen said Edwards’ program has become because parents realize its importance in today’s society.
“What’s happened as the years have gone by, I think, is the world is becoming smaller and more international,” she said.
Parents also see the success of the program through friends whose children are enrolled. “The national studies that have been done show that (English-speaking) kids who participate in the dual-language program actually do better in English later on,” Larsen said.
Educators said the program allows students to use a different part of their brain, which helps them process other information better, also translating to better scores on standardized tests. Friendships are also fostered by closing the language gap.
“The level of intercultural relationships is much higher at Edwards” where the dual-language program has been implemented, Rewold-Thuon said.
Larsen is a bit more stoic.
“It doesn’t mean all kids will be best friends if you break down all language and cultural barriers,” but it does help develop cultural respect, which extends out to the community, she said.
For students in traditional programs, problems with communication can lead to false assumptions and hurt feelings, especially on the playground. “One of the issues is when (kids) don’t know what the other kid is saying,” Rewold-Thuon said. “They think they are saying something that’s not nice.
“I think letting children walk in each others’ shoes helps them build respect for each other,” she said.
Donovan’s daughter, Kaitlyn, who is entering the fifth grade at Avon, received no training in Spanish, but her bilingual friend acts as a translator for her on the school playground.
“Maybe some students weren’t fortunate to have friends who would do that and felt like an outsider because of that,” Donovan said.
While Donovan is sold on the dual-language program, she said she understands it won’t sway many parents who enrolled their children in charter or private schools.
“You have a certain population that don’t want their children learning next to second-language learners,” she said. “It just makes them very uncomfortable.”
Avon will still have two or three traditional kindergarten classes for parents who may not want their children in dual language. Parents’ interest in the program will dictate its future, but students entering in it this fall are guaranteed to continue dual-language education through high school.
The dual-language classes will have 15 to 18 students each, ideally in equal numbers of native English and Spanish-speakers.
Since the traditional kindergarten classes are filled entirely with native Spanish-speakers, they will continue to be conducted in Spanish and English. “We don’t have enough English speakers to make another classroom,” Rewold-Thuon said.
English-speaking students whose parents don’t want them to participate in the dual-language program will most likely participate in only the English-speaking portions of the program.
“(The program is) on a continuum,” Rewold-Thuon said. “One or two kids wouldn’t throw off the balance if they stayed in the English portion.”
Seventy-eight percent of Avon students speak Spanish at home, but Rewold-Thuon said the extra interest in the program will help even out the demographics.
“We actually, in the kindergarten class, have had more people interested who speak English than there would have been,” she said.
Only two of the 17 English-speaking families that came to Avon’s Kindergarten Roundup in April opted out of the dual-language program, saying they thought learning other subjects in Spanish might confuse their children, Rewold-Thuon said.
One of the two decided to put their child in the new charter school, Stone Creek Elementary.
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