Interest in dual-language classes grows

2013-03-17T23:45:00Z Interest in dual-language classes growsBy ELYSIA CONNER Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
March 17, 2013 11:45 pm  • 

Advocates of allowing Natrona County School District students to learn in a foreign language for part of the day say they have found enough interested parents and educators to go ahead with the program.

A group of parents and educators called the Wyoming Dual Language Immersion Steering Committee in January gained permission to gauge community and school interest. Students in the optional program would spend half the day learning subjects such as math and science in a second language and the other half learning skills and reviewing lessons in English.

The next step for the so-called dual-language immersion program is to secure budget and curriculum approval.

Casper's Paradise Valley Elementary, Park Elementary and Fort Caspar Academy schools have applied to start programs this fall and are awaiting NCSD board of trustees approval.

Ninety-two parents expressed initial interest in starting their kindergartners in a dual-language immersion program this fall if the district adopts it, according to Mark Mathern, NCSD's associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction. At last week's NCSD board of trustees meeting, he said the district now plans to find out how many parents are interested in programs at the schools that applied.

Besides board approval of a curriculum, officials also would have to decide if the district can pay for a program at any or all of the interested schools, according to Mathern, who also is a member of the committee. The cost for one language program per grade in a school would be roughly $20,000 a year, he said.

Mathern told trustees that the timing would work well if the board makes a decision at its April 8 meeting. That would coincide with the schedule to inform parents which school their children have seats in -- part of an annual process designed to offer parents one of their top school choices.

A group of administrators, principals, teachers and parents of students at the three interested schools recently studied research and visited dual-language immersion classrooms in Utah, which leads a national movement for such programs.

What they saw impressed them and allayed concerns, including a fear that students might make slower progress in core subjects or not know what’s going on in class.

“You just have to see it to believe it,” Fort Caspar Academy Principal Randall Larson told trustees. “It’s not a barrier for the kids at all.”

He and kindergarten teacher Kenda Spicher, a former dual-language immersion skeptic, initially wondered if such a program could fit with the high academic expectations at Fort Caspar.

A teacher she observed during a visit to Utah "was just flying through those math lessons -- the same math I do -- and they were doing it all in Spanish,” Spicher said.

Parent Peter Timbers in a later interview said despite his initial skepticism, he’d be willing to switch his student to another school if it meant being in the program.

"How can we not do this?" Timbers said, adding that Utah is nearly last in the nation in spending per pupil while Wyoming ranks among the top.

Several advocates cited research indicating that dual-language students perform at least as well and often better academically than students in traditional classrooms, that there are cognitive benefits, and that the program has not been shown to do any harm.

What Timbers saw supported that research: A teacher had enhanced English lessons because the students were learning their home language faster.

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