Three years ago the Escalon Unified School District embarked on an experiment at Collegeville Elementary: the establishment of a Dual Language Immersion program designed to immerse students in the Spanish language during their earliest years of schooling. If students around the world commonly learn more than one language as they grow up, why shouldn’t we try something similar here? If we understand the value of being multilingual, perhaps the bigger question is why wouldn’t we try? The vision established for Collegeville Elementary was, and continues to be, producing a group of fully bilingual and biliterate students upon completion of a dual language program.
The inaugural group of students is just now in the process of completing their second grade year. If the rate at which students from English speaking households are developing Spanish speaking and reading abilities is any indication of the viability of the program, all you need to do is talk to one of them to hear the impressive results: these kids are speaking, reading and understanding Spanish! It is not only a joy to see it happen, but also represents a unique opportunity for them. I like to think of it as a gift of learning that these young students will be able to lean upon for the rest of their lives.
Dual Language Immersion (DLI) classrooms have been around for more than 40 years across the United States. Models of instruction vary, but generally speaking there are two that are most common; a 50/50 model in which students spend half of their instructional day working in one language and the other half in the other. The model used at Collegeville is commonly called the 90/10 model. In this model students begin in Kindergarten or first grade learning in an environment that focuses primarily on the target second language for 90 percent of the instructional day.
Although DLI can be set up to provide students with an opportunity to learn any language, programs are normally reflective of the needs of the community or region in which they exist, hence in Escalon our DLI program is designed to guide students along a path of English and Spanish bilingualism. In the 90/10 model students are gradually exposed to more and more of the regionally or nationally dominant language, or in this case English. For example, at Collegeville second grade students receive 80 percent of their daily instruction in Spanish and 20 percent in English. In the third grade they will divide up their time with 70 percent Spanish and 30 percent English. English to Spanish ratios continue to adjust until students reach a 50/50 split in the fifth grade. The long-term vision for Collegeville Elementary School is for it to continue to develop and grow into a K-8 school within which its sixth through eighth grade students will go on to receive instruction half of the day in English and the other half in Spanish. Students who complete the program will be able to enter directly into Escalon High School’s advanced Spanish language program and have the opportunity to earn college credit for their efforts. They will also be eligible to earn the California Seal of Biliteracy, which is a state-level recognition of a high school student’s academic bilingual achievement.
Another way to look at this is to ask readers of the Escalon Times who sat through a foreign language class in high school how successful the long-term effects of the experience really was? If you are bilingual today and the pathway to that success and development of your ability began there, I heartily congratulate you. If, on the other hand, you remember the experience but cannot remember much of the content, don’t feel too bad, as it becomes more difficult to reprogram your brain to function bilingually the older you become. Indeed, that is one of the reasons why children who grow up speaking two languages do not often have accents when they speak their second language, and why adults often do. As a former high school Spanish teacher I can personally attest to working patiently (and occasionally impatiently) with students for whom Spanish was quite difficult. Students who came from Spanish speaking backgrounds found it relatively easy and would often move ahead to more advanced levels. I often wondered what would happen if some of the students I had from English speaking households had been given the opportunity to learn Spanish at a younger age. Because of Collegeville’s program, I don’t have to speculate about this any further.
Students from Spanish speaking households who participate in DLI programs such as the one already functioning at Collegeville are more likely to academically outperform their non-participating peers because formal instruction in Spanish serves to reinforce and strengthen their understanding of English. In other words, both students from English and Spanish speaking households stand to benefit greatly from enrollment in such programs. Research conducted over the past couple of decades on the topic of dual language immersion reinforces and supports these assertions. However, far more important than college credit or academic awards and recognition are the lifelong advantages that bilingual students can potentially tap into upon entering the workforce. Individuals with a strong command of both languages will have greater professional opportunities than those with only one, particularly given the interconnected world in which we live.
I am immensely proud of the growth I have seen in our dual language students during the past two years I have served as principal. It is a testament not only to the viability and success of the dual language immersion concept, but more importantly to the strong efforts and enthusiasm of the staff who believe in the mission and vision of the school, believe in helping students achieve great things, and work collaboratively and passionately to transform that vision into reality.
Collegeville’s Dual Language Immersion program is currently open for enrollment in Kindergarten through third grade for the 2021-22 school year. The Escalon Unified School District will provide transportation to EUSD students who live outside of Collegeville’s service area. For more information about Collegeville Elementary School and its Dual Language Immersion Program, please visit collegevilleschool.org online or contact the school directly at 209-941-2007.
Principally Speaking is a monthly article, contributed by principals from Escalon Unified School District sites, throughout the school year. It is designed to update the community on school events and activities.