Valley Elementary's dual language program thrives

Valley Elementary School kindergartners Maritza Valle Ramirez, Amanda Flores and Shara O’Donnell work on a Spanish-language worksheet. Ninety percent of their class time is spent entirely in Spanish.  Photo by Emily Sorensen
Valley Elementary School kindergartners Maritza Valle Ramirez, Amanda Flores and Shara O’Donnell work on a Spanish-language worksheet. Ninety percent of their class time is spent entirely in Spanish. Photo by Emily Sorensen

By Emily Sorensen

Now in its 11th year, the dual language program at Valley Elementary School is going strong.

The program, which begins kindergartners in a nearly entirely Spanish language classroom, gradually works up through the grades until fifth, when classes are held half in English and half in Spanish, with the goal of students being entirely fluent in both languages when they move on to middle school.

Since beginning in the 2001-2002 school year, the program has gone on to not only see enrollment and participation swell, but has been able to see the fruits of its labor, as the first participants are now in high school. “The program’s first first-graders are now seniors,” said principal Andy Johnsen. Johnsen said the program has paid off, with the original participants getting a definite boost to their language skills. “The students were too skilled for Spanish 1-2, and had to be skipped to 5-6 or higher,” said Johnsen. “It’s nice validation for the work we do.”

Beginning with 60 students, Valley now has 420 students in the dual language program, nearly 60 percent of the student population. Valley also draws from 19 schools in the district, with parents transferring their students to Valley to participate in the program, which is so popular there are now wait lists and lotteries to get in. According to Johnsen, some families even buy a home in the Valley Elementary area and move to better their chances of getting into the dual language program.

More than just an extra effort to incorporate Spanish into the classroom, the program requires extra planning, regulations, and for its teachers to have extra training and credentials. “Our teachers [in the program] all have special training to support language learners,” said Johnsen. “They are very skilled at creating lessons that are supportive of kids learning English and Spanish, from basic language skills up to lessons in reading, writing and math.”

All teachers at Valley who are part of the dual language program have B-CLAD (bilingual cross-cultural language and academic development) credentials, which require extra classes and exams from the state. In addition, all but one of the teachers are native Spanish speakers from around the world. “The kids have no problem with different dialects,” said Johnsen. “It’s good for them to be exposed to different forms.”

The program is called a dual language program because it simultaneously teaches native English speakers Spanish, and native Spanish speakers English, with the result being fluent in both by fifth grade. “This is the best model to have,” said Johnsen, as the children can help each other learn their second language. “A one-way program, such as all English speakers learning Spanish, is harder to do.”

The children start out in kindergarten, where 90 percent of their class time is in Spanish. Everything in the classroom, from posters to labels, is also in Spanish, to facilitate learning. As the grade levels increase, the ratio of Spanish-to-English slowly levels out. Translating is never done, so the children don’t just ignore the Spanish and wait for the English translation. “[Classes] are in Spanish from the very first day,” said Johnsen. “It starts very simple.”

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