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For the week of April 25 through May 1, 2001

Dual-immersion classes

Kindergartners to be taught in two languages


By TRAVIS PURSER
Express Staff Writer

To help English-speaking and Spanish-speaking students do better academically, elementary schools in Blaine County plan to begin teaching some kindergarten classes in both languages this fall.

Bellevue Elementary School ESL teacher Kathleen Diepenbrock reads "Snakes!" with students Juan Castro, center, and Karina Velasco. A new way of teaching may help better integrate Spanish-speaking students and help all students academically. Express photo by David Seelig

The Blaine County School District has received a $507,000 federal grant to hire two bi-lingual teachers for dual-immersion classes at Bellevue and Hemingway elementary schools. The classes would help teachers better meet the needs of English-speaking students as well as Spanish-speaking students, whose numbers have grown to 320 in the district, compared to a decade ago when there were fewer than 25.

Dual-immersion classes devote equal amounts of time to teaching all subjects in English and Spanish, with no translation offered by teachers. Scheduling in local schools has not yet been determined, but, for example, classes composed equally of English-first and Spanish-first students might be taught entirely in Spanish one day, then entirely in English the next. The dual-immersion concept is fairly unusual with only about 300 school districts in the nation offering the classes.

Local school officials say both English- and Spanish-speaking students would benefit cognitively from the new way of teaching. Bilingual students perform better than monolingual students on tasks that call for divergent thinking, pattern recognition and problem solving, they say.

Students whose first language is Spanish would no longer be removed from classes in other subject areas to learn English. That may help increase those studentsí standardized test scores which, in grades three through 11, are typically below 30 percent compared to 60 percent or above for the general student body in Blaine County.

"Another thing I like about it is youíre integrating kids," said Kathleen Diepenbrock, an English-as-Second-Language teacher at Bellevue Elementary.

The current system of pulling ESL students out of regular classes, she said, likely sends a divisive message to the remaining students of "Oh, all the dark-skinned, brown-haired students are in this [other] room."

On Friday afternoon in her tiny classroom, Diepenbrock taught four second-grade ESL students using the traditional "pull-out" method, as she has for the six years sheís been a teacher in the school district.

Sitting around a miniature table, the students read sections from a book about snakes, and enthusiastically read aloud their own writings both in Spanish and English. Like many ESL students, they speak English well, but need extra help with reading and writing the language.

Though ESL students like these who are taught the traditional way might appear to be doing quite well in the early grades, looks can be deceiving, Diepenbrock said. Typically, pull-out students improve in all subject areas between kindergarten and third grade, she said. Then their performance declines.

"I used to think Iíve got to get them learning English fast," she said. But forcing them to learn English too fast can cause them to lose their native language, which has been widely shown to slow all learning. "We need to keep them progressing in their natural language while they learn English."

Dual-immersion is "not so much teaching language classes apart from context," she said, as it is "learning both languages in the context of all subjects."

Bringing monolingual kindergartners into school and trying to teach them in a language they donít understand might seem difficult, she said, but it works because so much learning at that age is hands-on and uses visual aids.

Currently, English-speaking students donít begin learning a second language until grade seven. Another advantage of learning a second language earlier is studentsí accents are better, Diepenbrock said.

But with all the advantages dual-immersion classes have to offer, the district plans a somewhat cautious approach to offering them. At first, one kindergarten class each would be offered at Bellevue and Hemingway, with current funding allowing dual-immersion classes to continue for three years.

Diepenbrock called the classes "additive" or "enrichment," meaning they would probably not be ideally suited for all students at first. Though the classes would not be specifically aimed at high-achieving students, struggling students would be discouraged from enrolling, because "it might take them a little longer to become equally proficient in both languages." Teachers would watch closely for students who begin to fall behind.

Diepenbrock, who was the districtís second ESL teacher when she began at Bellevue six years ago, is now one of six ESL teachers, helped by eight bi-lingual teaching assistants. She said the districtís dual-immersion plans resulted from three years of research she and Blake Walsh, district director for student services, conducted with the districtís ESL committee.

 

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