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Inmersión linguística

The first-graders in Tristan Webb’s class at Jewett Elementary School in Central Point stare at him blankly as he explains and distributes a math worksheet.

The assignment is simple — write out numbers one through 30 — but it's in Spanish. And the majority of Webb's class speaks only English.

Nonetheless, the English speakers take their cue from a handful of bilingual and Spanish-speaking students, as well as from their teacher’s dramatic hand gestures, and figure out what to do.

“I just follow everyone else,” says 6-year-old Isabella Chubb, who speaks only English.

But after just three days in Jewett’s two-way immersion program, Chubb has learned to count from one to 10 in Spanish. Several of her English-speaking classmates also have picked up random Spanish words, including “rojo,” “pájaro” and "jaguares,"  which translate as “red,” “bird” and “jaguars," the school's mascot, in English. 

"Every morning we say, 'Todos somos jaguares' ('We are jaguars'), and then we do this little roar," Webb says.

This year, thanks to a state grant of $125,000 and the support of teachers and parents, the Central Point School District launched the immersion program — the first in the district — at Jewett Elementary.

The school replaced one of its three kindergarten classrooms and one of its four first-grade classrooms with bilingual classrooms comprised of students who speak only Spanish, only English or who are bilingual.

The school plans to add an additional bilingual class each year in subsequent grades through the fifth grade.

"The goal of the program is for students to be bilingual and bi-literate,” says Jewett Principal Tom Rambo.

In the early grades, at least 90 percent of the instruction will be delivered in Spanish, says Tess Siemer, who teaches Spanish at Crater High School and who worked with Rambo and other district staff to research and write the grant.

However, more and more of the instructional day will be in English as the kids advance through the program. By the fourth and fifth grades, about 50 percent of the day will be taught in Spanish and 50 percent will be taught in English. 

“In the upper grades, math and science could be taught in Spanish, and English, language arts and history could be taught in English,” Siemer says.

Oregon’s first dual-language programs were established in the ’70s and ’80s in Woodburn, Salem and Portland. The Phoenix-Talent School District added its first program in the early ’90s at Phoenix Elementary and, four years later, added another at Talent Elementary.

Now, 70 elementary schools in Oregon have some type of bilingual program. Some of these programs, such as those in Central Point and Phoenix-Talent, are in Spanish, while others are in Russian, Chinese, French or Japanese, says David Bautista, assistant superintendent of the Oregon Department of Education’s Equity Unit.

“This was an unpopular concept for a while because people were disgusted with the idea of catering to a minority group,” Bautista says.

“But a world-class education can no longer be in English only,” Bautista says, quoting U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Neither the Eagle Point School District nor the Medford School District offers two-way immersion programs.

Medford offered the program in the ’90s at Howard Elementary, but it was sunset after the school was awarded the Reading First grant, which allowed for only English instruction, says Terri Dahl, who supervises the district’s federal programs.

“It’s something we've talked about, and something we think is important,” says Dahl. “But it’s just a matter of setting up the logistics, getting the funds to support that and going through the proper channels.”

Phoenix-Talent schools Superintendent Teresa Sayre says about 270 students are enrolled in the district's immersion programs.

“The students who complete our K-5 program tend to score about 20 percent higher on state assessments than their peers who aren't in the program,” Sayre says. “And our Hispanic graduation rates are 15 percent higher than the state average and migrant graduation rates are 25 percent higher than the state average, which I think is directly related to our two-way immersion program.”

Shannon Kuriyama, who teaches the fifth-grade immersion class at Talent Elementary, says that by the time native Spanish-speakers graduate from her class, they can carry on in conversational English.

“The English speakers can read and write in Spanish and understand about 85 percent of what I’m saying in Spanish,” she says. “Their Spanish is good, and when I say ‘good,’ I don’t mean they could survive a fifth-grade class in Mexico. But most will test into second- or third-year Spanish in high school, no problem.”

Kathryn Lindholm Leary, who lives in Grants Pass and teaches child and adolescent development at San Jose State University, has spent the last 30 years researching dual-language instruction.

Kids learn languages quickly, she says, not because they are “sponges,” but because they aren't as afraid of making mistakes as adults and, therefore, “feel freer using the language.”

Leary says research indicates that kids who participate in dual-language programs score higher on standardized tests than mainstream students. They also tend to have better memories, better problem-solving skills and better spatial recognition and develop better connections across cultures, among other things.

“And they are bilingual and can read and write in two languages at grade level,” Leary adds.

Rambo says parents at his school choose to enroll their children in the program because of its economic benefits, too — more job opportunities, more scholarships, etc. — and because it exposes their kids to other cultures.

Chubb’s mom, Jennifer Tarolli, says she thought her daughter would be overwhelmed by the language barrier, but so far it hasn't been a problem.

Tarolli, whose grandparents are from Mexico and whose mother speaks Spanish, says her daughter can’t wait to tell her grandmother, dad and brother about everything she’s learning.

“I want to speak Spanish because I want to talk to my grandma in California,” Isabella says.

Audra Warner says her first-grade son, Ben, who also is in Webb's class, has come home each day with new Spanish vocabulary words to share with her.

“He’s learning everything a first-grade class would learn but in Spanish,” Warner says.

Rambo says the curriculum for the two-way immersion program is aligned with the Common Core State Standards, and students in the program will take the Smarter Balance Assessment with their peers.

Younger students in the program typically don't fare as well on state tests as students in traditional English classrooms, but by the fourth and fifth grade — once they've established a strong Spanish and English foundation — they’ll be more successful, Rambo says.

“The power of the program is the ability to stick with it,” he says, adding that its intensity makes it difficult for students to join after the first grade.

Currently, Jewett has 27 kids enrolled in its kindergarten immersion class — another five or six students are on a waiting list — and 23 students in its first-grade immersion class.

Of the kids in his class, Webb says about 14 only speak English and the other nine only speak Spanish or are bilingual.

"They are not Spanish learners," he says. "They are not English learners. They are first-graders."

As it is only the first week of school, the class includes a lot of repetition, gestures, pictures and “words of the week,” which signal that it’s time for a new activity, Webb says.

“I have seen some of the English speakers already start to say things in Spanish,” Webb says. “They’re just words, not sentences. But by the end of October, some of them may be able to say full sentences and soon that’ll turn into conversations.

“Eventually, it will turn into them producing language,” he adds.

Reach education reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or tthomas@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/teresathomas_mt.

Jewett Elementary School first-graders in a new language immersion program learn how to say 'high five' in Spanish on Thursday. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch
First-grade students participating in the immersion program at Jewett Elementary School hand in an assignment Thursday. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch