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Dual language classroom program discussed with school board

Since the start of the dual language classrooms, designed to teach both English and Spanish speaking children of the community the language opposite their native tongue, there has been some adjustments to the program to make it fit the Sunnyside community.

A program designed as a bilingual immersion class, combining natural Spanish speakers with natural speakers of English, Gary Vegar, the Executive Director of Instruction and Learning, said the goal is to create students who are bilingual, biliterate and bicultural.

At a specially called meeting Tuesday evening, he said the benefits of the program include enrichment, challenging instruction, languages are equally represented, value and respect for other cultures, and future economic advantages such as job opportunities.

The Sunnyside program has been modeled after schools in Texas that have been taught with 50 percent Spanish and 50 percent English instruction. The classroom make-up is 50 percent Spanish speaking students and 50 percent English speaking students, according to Kris Diddens, Principal at Pioneer Elementary School. Pioneer is the most advanced in the Sunnyside School District in developing the dual language program from kindergarten to fifth grade. This fall third grade dual language classrooms will be added to the school. The dual language program is a six-year commitment for students.

Diddens said since the program started at her school they have learned that the program isn't as effective if either the English or Spanish speaking students have a high proficiency level in the opposite language than what they would consider their primary language.

She explained that having children in the program who have no experience in the secondary language they are trying to learn works best.

The classes are set up so that math is always taught in English and science and social studies in Spanish.

"Often the English speaking kids will say, 'I don't get it'," said Diddens. "The Spanish speaking kids are used to not knowing what's going on."

Bilingual partners in the classrooms are key to student learning.

"The teacher is not going to translate, but kids can help another student who doesn't understand," she said.

Another step to making the program truly bilingual is "language of the day," which makes all non-instructional parts of the class, such as the Pledge of Allegiance and the lunch count, in either English or Spanish, depending on what the language of the day is.

By the time students reach the second grade level, there is a 90- minute block of reading English and 50 minutes of reading in Spanish for every student.

Although the program has been operating in three of what will be four Sunnyside elementary schools, (with the development of a new middle school, Chief Kamiakin will be transformed into a K-5 school), there are some concerns about the dual language program.

One of the concerns, said Vegar, is that there is a year of planning and training at a building before implementation.

He added that there must be a comprehensive district system of monitoring dual language proficiency and development.

Currently, the schools are having a difficult time with one of the trainers paid to teach them about Troteos, a curriculum approved by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

"The training is inadequate as compared to Open Courts curriculum training," said Diddens.

The school district was unable to use the Open Courts program because the state found fault with the program.

Another concern is replacing students in the dual language program, who move away.

Finding qualified bilingual staff is also a concern.

Currently, there are six teachers at Pioneer Elementary School and two teachers each at Washington and Outlook elementary schools. By 2009 the three elementary schools will need 12 teachers each and by 2012 an additional 12 teachers will be needed for Chief Kamiakin.

Parent Sandra Linde was concerned about students who are learning the content of instruction in Spanish when their proficiency is in English. She questioned that students wouldn't know basic things needed on the WASL test because they had been taught in Spanish.

Diddens explained that content and vocabulary will be taught to students in their native language.

Sunnyside School Board member Bill Smith questioned if there was any hard data showing the program works.

"If this is the best way to teach them, then let's go for it, but let's look at the data first," said Smith.

In one study of Spanish speaking students, provided by Sunnyside Executive Director Ruben Carrera, the traditional English as a second language pullout method is shown to be ineffective in teaching English and having students retain it through high school. The most effective way to teach English, according to the study, is through two-way bilingual education.

"The traditional English as a second language pullout model doesn't work," said Schools Superintendent Dr. Rick Cole.

Doris Matson, a dual language teacher at Washington Elementary School, said the dual language program is not designed just so graduates of the program can get a bilingual job in Sunnyside.

"If you look in the newspaper, there isn't a job where bilingual isn't preferred," said Matson, mentioning the likes of Boeing.

Although Cole is in favor of the dual language program, he added it isn't for everyone.

"The program isn't for every kid," said Diddens. "We still have a lot of parents who say, 'this is America, speak English'. Those kids whose parents are against this (the program) would be detrimental to them and their family values.

There are still a few kinks to work out in the dual language program. One of the problems is what happens to the youths when they reach sixth grade.

Cole said the district is looking at bringing high school Spanish instructors to the middle school since they will already have a base in the language.

Diddens has found that parents are selling the dual language program.

"A parent called and had just signed up her three-year-old for pre-school and wanted to know when to sign up for a dual language class," said Diddens.

The school board will be further reviewing the program later this summer at a retreat.

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