Bilingual for life
Medford kindergarten students will be able to add another skill with the launch at Jackson Elementary next fall of the school district's newest (corrected) dual-language program.
"I'm just thrilled," said Marisa Poling, Jackson's principal. "It's something that our district and teachers have really wanted for a really long time, being able to offer this special program to students and families."
The district will start with a single kindergarten class composed half of native Spanish speakers and half native English speakers, which is the recommended model. Most students will come from Jackson, but the district plans to open a few spots to students from other schools.
They will receive 90 percent of their instruction in Spanish and the other 10 percent in English. For the rest of their years in elementary school, those students will stay in a dual-language classroom, with the language of instruction ratio centering gradually. By second grade, it will be 80 percent Spanish, 20 percent English. Third grade will be 70 percent and 30 percent. Fifth- and sixth-grade instruction will be 50/50.
Terri Dahl, Medford School District supervisor of federal programs and school improvement, helped lead the committee that worked for two years recruiting staff, taking input from parents and researching immersion programs to know how best to structure the program to benefit students.
“We used research from Collier and Thomas, we used research from the National Center of Linguistics, the committee read the books, reviewed best practice ideas, and then we came to a conclusion of what we wanted to present to the School Board,” she said.
The board was mostly enthusiastic after hearing the presentation at its work session Feb. 11.
Jim Horner, a board member, was hesitant — he was concerned about lower test scores in third-grade reading and said he thought the dual-immersion program would mostly appeal to families who expect their child to go to college.
Board Vice Chair Suzanne Messer, who is a senior inventory project manager at Erickson, did not agree.
“I can tell you right now, in our industry ... if you don’t speak two languages, you are not going to all the countries we go to, and you’re not going to get paid the amount of money those guys get paid,” she said.
Horner also wondered whether students coming from Spanish-speaking households would learn English well enough, which he described as “the key” to being successful, at least in the U.S.
Dahl said research shows that although Spanish-native students have lower scores initially on benchmarks such as state tests, by the time they hit eighth grade, they tend to overtake their English-speaking peers in achievement.
A 2017 study by the RAND corporation that looked at students from Portland Public Schools, for example, concluded that English learners in dual-immersion programs were 14 percentage points more likely to be proficient in English by sixth grade than English speakers not in a dual-immersion program.
“These findings are consistent with other research that finds that (dual-language immersion) helps English learners become proficient in English at higher rates by middle or high school,” the study said.
Jackson County is no stranger to dual-language programs. Central Point, Phoenix-Talent, Eagle Point and Ashland school districts all have them.
At Eagle Point School District’s Table Rock Elementary School Wednesday morning, Kelly Ramirez’s first-grade classroom was learning syllables through vocabulary practice.
To practice use of the “ch” syllable, the fourth in the Spanish alphabet, Ramirez told the students, who were working in pairs, to find a way to use the words “leche” and “pecho” in complete sentences.
When a pair of students answered a question correctly, Ramirez led the rest of the class in a hearty “bien hecho” (“well done”), congratulating them for their answer.
The first group of students at Table Rock who launched the program are now in fourth grade. When families are being considered for acceptance into the programs, Principal Valerie Shehorn said that school officials explain the expected commitment: see it through all six years.
She said that when people leave Table Rock’s dual-language classrooms, it’s usually because they’re moving out of the school altogether, she said.
“Most classes are staying pretty solid,” she said.
Sticking with the program can mean that students graduate fully bilingual and biliterate. Although it’s not planning to have immersion programs all the way up through high school, Medford has for years offered a biliteracy seal program at North and South Medford high schools.
“As far as careers, opportunities for those students, it adds so much more variety of options for them,” Dahl said. “And basically every year, I get calls all of the time: ‘When is Medford going to start a dual language program?’”
Poling said she wished the program had been available to her own children when they were young enough.
“I believe that it can impact culture and learning for kids in a really global way, and that is powerful,” she said. “In my opinion, it’s powerful for kids to have this skill set at such a young age when their brains can adapt and learn in a natural setting in both languages.”
(A previous version of this article state that the forthcoming dual language program is the Medford School District's first. It had a dual language program that was smaller in size in the 1980s and '90s.)