Elementary students throughout Cache Valley are studying their lessons this school year in languages other than English. First and second graders in six different schools, are receiving half of the day’s instruction in foreign languages. UPR reporter Beth McEvoy sat in on one first grade class taught entirely in Spanish.
Señora Floyd's first grade classroom looks typical of any room at Heritage Elementary. Posters of shapes, colors, months and days of the week plaster the wall in the Nibley classroom. The only difference is that they all happen to be in Spanish.
The six- and seven-year-olds assemble quickly on the floor. A sea of arms pier up from the carpet all in hopes of being picked to put today's date on the calendar.
School has only been in session for a little over a month yet the children are already familiar with the routine and expectations of their new teacher despite the fact she has only ever spoken to them in Spanish.
“They’re amazing," said Floyd. "They learn quite fast, they’re eager to learn, they’re eager to repeat, they’re excited about it and that helps a great deal."
The students are enrolled in Utah’s Dual Language Immersion program. The program breaks students into two classes. The first works with an English speaking teacher on literacy, while their peers study math, social studies and science in the target language. At half-day the students switch teachers.
“The younger you are the easier the language comes to you," says Floyd. "They're not programmed yet totally as to different sound. As of right now they can make any sound that is used in any language, they don’t know any differently."
Of the nearly 100 programs across the state, six have reached Cache Valley. Two classes in Spanish and Portuguese, and one in both French and Mandarin began this school year in the Logan and Cache County School districts. The program will continue with students through middle school. Once in high school, the students will be prepared to take college language courses.
Shauna Winegar facilitates the program for the Cache County School District, and said the goal is to create professionals who can speak multiple languages.
“What we’re hoping to do with the dual language immersion program is we're hoping to graduate doctors, lawyers, businessman, teachers with an added skill speaking a language; and it is just something that can happen so very easily because their brains are wired to do it," she said.
Gregg Roberts is the dual language immersion specialist with the Utah State Office of Education. He’s been heading up the program since its inception in 2008.
Roberts said one of the reasons the program has been successful is because it’s producing high results at a very low cost. The Utah legislature earmarked $2 million to help train teachers, create curriculums and for resources like foreign language textbooks which means there is no additional costs put to schools and districts for having the program.
“I did not know these kids could become so good so quickly in the target language," Roberts said. "I have to tell you it’s been unbelievable how well our third, fourth and fifth graders are producing this year in the target language. We have many people from around the world that actually visit our classrooms that are blown away by the language skills of our students.”
While Roberts admits the program is not for every student, he says some struggling learners do even better in the dual language immersion program. Through it all he said the most important thing is that parents can decide whether the program is right for their child.
Principal Jacqi McDowell at Heritage Elementary says the community response has been overwhelming. All of the programs in the district have waiting lists, and of the first grade class at Heritage, over half the students are from out of the school's boundaries.
McDowell said she is gearing up to staff the program in the future years as it grows. She said her biggest concern is maintaining school unity.
“We don’t want people to think because their child is in the program somehow that puts them a little higher than the rest of the students."
McDowell is working to make the dual language immersion part of the whole school community. She said involving all the teachers and students in learning about Spanish culture is helping prevent it from becoming an elitist program.
Roberts said the main complaint from parents is that the program is not available to all students.
“One of the few concerns I see across the state is there are a lot of parents that are upset, and the number one complaint is my kid can’t get in the program or it's not at my school and that is the number one complaint I hear about this program, it's supply and demand.”
Roberts says the state office only responds to the requests of its school districts so if parents want the program in their communities they need to start talking to their school administrators.
To contact your school district, see the State Board of Education's Contact booklet.