Friday, May 27, 2011

For Dual Immersion, growth and hurdles

Two-language program marks 10-year anniversary

Express Staff Writer

Teacher Deborah VanLaw instructs an eager group of Dual Immersion kindergartners at Woodside Elementary School in Hailey. After 10 years of operation, the two-language program remains popular with parents in the Blaine County School District. Photo by Willy Cook

After 10 years in existence, enrollment continues to climb in the Blaine County School District's Dual Immersion program, showing that many parents still want their children to learn a second language.

From humble beginnings in 2001, when the first class of 60 kindergartners enrolled in Dual Immersion, the program finishes this school year with 682 students in grades kindergarten through 9, representing 20 percent of the district's total enrollment of about 3,400 students.

Another 120 kindergartners are expected to be enrolled in the two-language program by the beginning of the coming school year.

The concept is simple: instruct a class of students in both English and Spanish languages and keep them together as a class throughout their school years. Eventually, Spanish-speaking students will become fluent in English and English-speaking students will become fluent in Spanish.

But 10 years experience with the program, unique in the state of Idaho, has shown that successful implementation is difficult. The school district is constantly searching for teachers fluent in both languages, Dual Immersion students have to be spread around four different elementary schools in the district, scheduling becomes complex as students reach higher grade levels, and the district faces an alarming attrition rate as Dual Immersion students drop out of the program.

"After the first decade of Dual Immersion in Blaine County, there's much to celebrate," said Dual Immersion Coordinator Molly Michalec. "As in all programs, there's room for improvement. We want to ensure the best possible learning outcomes for students and a sustainable model for a long-lasting program."

Attrition in D.I.

From the original group of 60 Dual Immersion students who enrolled in the program in 2001, only 31 remained at the close of this school year. Sixty-one students enrolled in 2002, and only 36 still remain in the program. Forty out of 67 students remained in the program from the group that enrolled in 2003, and 42 of 63 from the kindergarten class of 2004.

Michalec and district Curriculum Director Patricia McLean haven't determined the causes for the high attrition rates, but are compiling data from interviews with students who left the program.

McLean said it's desirable that students remain in Dual Immersion throughout their 13 years in the district.

"If they don't continue that, then they can lose the skill," she said.

Dual Immersion students K-5 stay together as classes throughout the entire school day. Once the students reach middle school, they stay together throughout part of the day but are allowed to take electives with other students.

The original kindergarten class of 2001 reached ninth grade this year, bringing Dual Immersion to Wood River High School. As constituted this year, students remained together for two periods each day, taking Spanish language and a social studies course taught in Spanish. They were free for the remainder of the school day to take English-taught electives and required courses in other subjects.

McLean explained that becoming fluent in a language involves more than just learning to speak the language. It also involves understanding the language, interpretation skills and learning to read, write and study in the language.

One of the causes of attrition, she said, may be that by the time Dual Immersion students reach high school, they have varying proficiency levels in Spanish, and the more advanced students may feel held back.

McLean and Michalec will ask the district board of trustees at its monthly meeting on June 14 for changes in the program that would keep Dual Immersion students together just one period a day for social studies taught in Spanish, but would allow them to take one of six different levels in Spanish language.

Spanish 1-4 classes are currently available at the high school. If the school board approves the new plan, pre-Advanced Placement Spanish would also be offered, along with Advanced Placement Spanish, which would allow students to earn college credits.

McLean and Michalec will also ask the school board in June to approve planning to establish a single elementary school in the district that would offer only Dual Immersion studies. Referred to as a "magnet school," the facility would draw students from throughout the school district, making coordination from grade-to-grade easier.

The earliest the magnet school could be established is for the beginning of the 2012 school year.

Does it work?

Test results have shown that English-speaking students who enroll in Dual Immersion initially lag scholastically behind their non-Dual Immersion counterparts, but within a few years they score higher overall than their counterparts on achievement tests.

Student achievement, in addition to acquiring a new language, has always been a goal of the district's Dual Immersion program.

Dual Immersion also teaches students about new cultures and helps them gain "global awareness," said McLean, who would like additional two-language study programs brought to the district involving other languages.

"I like to think of the U.S. that looks outside at the world, and there's much more out there than just English and Spanish," McLean said.

Terry Smith:

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