DISD elementary dual-language program adds kindergarten immersion

DISD elementary dual-language program adds kindergarten immersion

“Hoy, el idioma del día es español.”

Today, the language of the day is Spanish.

In two colorful classrooms at Alex Sanger Elementary near White Rock Lake, 44 kindergartners are more likely to be speaking in Spanish than English.

“With the dual-language program, he definitely has an understanding of the Spanish,” said parent Houston Clarke. Clarke’s son, Alexander, is enrolled in the program, which was added at the kindergarten level this year.

The classes are about evenly split between students who speak Spanish at home and those who speak English.

“We wanted to definitely have him coming out [of elementary] speaking Spanish,” Clarke said.

Principal Hector Martinez, who is finishing his second year at Sanger, said teachers are so confident in what students have learned that the kindergartners will be tested in Spanish. The school has had a dual-language program for about six years, and it added two immersion classrooms for kindergartners this year.

“The implementation and monitoring of it wasn’t very good in the first four years,” Martinez said.

Last year, he said, the school met with parents about the program to figure out a clear direction. Sanger also worked with Rosemont Elementary in Oak Cliff, which has a successful program.

“We noticed that their model is a little bit different than the model we wanted to use,” Martinez said. “It did help. I think the best thing that our teachers learned was standardizing something is helpful for consistency, but you have to be willing to be flexible.”

The walls of classrooms 119 and 121 at Sanger Elementary are covered in bilingual posters. Colorful floor rugs have pictures of pineapples and unicorns, with the names spelled out in English and Spanish. And students spend more time hearing Spanish than they do hearing English.

“I think the kids have advanced a lot,” said Raquel Rodríguez, who teaches in Room 121. “They’re really progressing — starting from scratch, you can see how far they’ve come.”

Rodríguez, who will return to her native Madrid this summer, said parents have been very supportive of the program.

“It is the age when [the kids are] absorbing all the things you tell them,” she said.

The way it works

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, the language of the day is Spanish; on Tuesdays and Thursdays, it’s English. Math is always taught in English, but subjects such as writing, reading, science and social studies are always taught in Spanish, Martinez said.

“We definitely want to try to do a 50-50 balance,” Martinez said. “Along the way, we’re finding out that [there is also] a cultural difference within the native English speakers and the native Spanish speakers.”

The English-speaking students are more outspoken, Martinez said. The students are paired up — an English speaker with a Spanish speaker.

Asked in Spanish if they liked it so far, a chorus of small voices in Rodriguez’s class answered “si,” with only one “no.” They started learning Spanish the first day of class, they said — and though some students heard Spanish spoken at home, all have learned to read in Spanish at the school.

The way Sanger’s program is set up, students will hear more Spanish than English in kindergarten and first grade — including learning to read and write in Spanish. When they reach second grade, the class will switch to half Spanish and half English instruction through fifth grade.

“We only learn to read once, and they do make the transfer’’ to English, said Alessandra Neal, who teaches in Room 119. “Some kids want to write in English, but they use the phonetics from Spanish.”

Broadening horizons

Neal is originally from Ecuador, where she said she, too, took dual-language classes. She said watching the kids interact with one another as they learn to speak the same language has been fulfilling.

“I think it broadens their horizons, for both English and Spanish speakers,” she said. “They learn things from different perspectives, not just one.”

During a recent career day, students dressed up to show who they’d like to grow up to be. In Spanish, they explained why they were going to be scientificos (scientists), maestras (teachers) and even agentes (agents). With only a few needing to use English words or asking for help, the conversation flew back and forth as 5- and 6-year-olds navigated a bilingual world that many adults cannot comprehend.

“America is very far behind” on teaching bilingually, said parent Tom Earnshaw. “I don’t want my son to be behind; being bilingual is important.”

Earnshaw said his son, Tommy, knew no Spanish before this year but can write better in Spanish than English at this point.

That fluency is part of the reason Dallas ISD offers multiple avenues for students to learn, said André Riley, a spokesman for DISD.

The district, he said, offers one-way schools to help students who need to learn English, and two-way language programs for parents who want their children to learn multiple languages.

“In both cases, Dallas ISD is able to provide effective instruction that best supports increased student achievement,” Riley said.

Sanger is the only school in the district to offer a full-immersion component with a dual-language program, he said.

Learning languages at a young age, Martinez said, is crucial for students.

“You and I can learn another language, but it’s in a different part of the brain than when children learn,” Martinez said.

And while the goal is to be fluent in two languages, the program also seeks to create children who are bicultural, too.

“They see through color,” Neal said. “I have seen friendships flourish.”


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