Nearing its tenth anniversary, Teton County School District’s dual immersion Spanish program is a success, as judged by students, parents, and test scores.
By Frances Moody
ANXIOUS FEELINGS FROM parents and students spread across Kathleen Gutierrez’s kindergarten classroom on the first day of school last year, but the teacher knew exactly how to ease the tension by reading the children’s book The Kissing Hand. In Spanish. Hearing this relatable story of a baby raccoon leaving his mother’s side for the first time wouldn’t be the only taste of Spanish the kindergartners would experience throughout the school year: As the newest students selected for a dual immersion program that consists of 556 students in nine grades, the kindergartners would go on to spend half of every school day learning in Spanish. (At all grade levels, the goal is for half of the students to be native Spanish speakers and half to be native English speakers.)
The dual immersion program began in 2009 when Teton County School District No. 1 officials recognized the need to find a way to close the achievement gap for Spanish-speaking students. “Staff determined that data clearly show that non-English-speaking students do better in a dual immersion program when compared to those in an English-only classroom,” says Charlotte Reynolds, information coordinator for the school district. Reynolds also says research shows a dual immersion program is the most effective educational approach to help students, English and Spanish speakers alike, become bilingual. “Schools don’t have to trade time from academics to study a foreign language,” she says.
Forty kids were initially enrolled in the program, which first consisted of two kindergarten and two first-grade classes at Jackson Elementary School. The first batch of students in the program reach high school this coming school year. In fall 2018, a new school that will house the entire elementary dual immersion program opens at Munger Mountain south of Jackson. (Jackson Hole Middle School and Jackson Hole High School will still have both programs.)
CURRENT ELEMENTARY STUDENTS learn reading in English and math in Spanish, and the middle schoolers take a history and language arts class in Spanish. Eighth-grader Lezly Diaz, who entered the program when she was in first grade, remembers the excitement she felt when she realized she would spend half the day learning in Spanish. “When I entered kindergarten it was a struggle, because I didn’t know much English,” she says. “Spending half the day learning in Spanish helped me understand a lot more.” The thirteen-year-old now fluently speaks English.
Sisters Dylan and Izzy Visosky, native English speakers, are also in the program. “I like that I can talk to people in Spanish and English,” says Izzy, who is in first grade. “I like that I can make new friends by speaking in Spanish.” Fourth-grader Dylan says she loves that she consistently gets to learn about Latino cultures. Reynolds’ own daughter, ten-year-old Lucy Waldrop, likes that she is an expert in a subject her parents don’t know (neither of them are fluent in Spanish). “I think it’s fun to show them how to do it,” the fourth-grader says. “It’s funny to correct them when they say something wrong.”
AND DATA SHOW the program is closing the student achievement gap. When the students currently in eighth grade were in first grade, they had lower Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP, scores in math than the students learning in traditional classrooms. Within three years—so by the time they were in third grade—the scores of the two groups (the dual immersion students and traditional students) were almost the same.
While Teton County School District No. 1 was the first in Wyoming to create a dual program, other districts have since hopped on board. Casper has a dual program in Mandarin and also one in Spanish, and Gillette and Laramie started programs last fall.