Immersion Program Is A Success---Students Steeped In Spanish

BELLEVUE—Steve and Dianne McCracken knew they were taking a risk when they enrolled their first-grade daughter, Darrah, in the state’s first Spanish-immersion class 12 years ago. Some of their fears materialized, among them a lack of quality texts and a shortage of bilingual teachers.

Darrah kept going, however, and now she’s one of eight seniors graduating tomorrow from the final year of Spanish immersion at Newport High School. About 50 started the program in 1986, but most moved away or chose to stay in neighborhood schools instead of traveling crosstown to Spanish programs.

The McCrackens are glad their daughter stuck it out. “We’ve been very pleased it succeeded,” her dad said, “and we’re also pleased with the Bellevue School District because they’ve had enough courage to try alternative programs.”

Only 21 school districts in the nation offer a 12-year immersion program, in which students take most of their classes in a foreign language. Bellevue’s Spanish-immersion program now has 420 participants.

Newport High teacher Paul Mendes said his graduates are so fluent and have such strong vocabularies that if they spent a half-year abroad, they would acquire the idioms and voice tone to sound like native speakers.

Of the nine immersion students who took advanced-placement tests in Spanish as juniors, eight earned scores equivalent to five or six quarters of college credit, said Jean Wollenberg, the district’s world-languages director.

And one of the most important measures of Bellevue’s program is its waiting list. This month there are 17 Bellevue students and 48 outside the city hoping to get in.

Language immersion is becoming popular around the country as families perceive fluency in a second language as a path to good jobs. At least 180 districts offer immersion classes on at least one grade level, serving 40,000 students, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics, a nonprofit agency in Washington, D.C.

After a dozen years together, Bellevue’s students seem like a family. They spent a week in Costa Rica as eighth-graders and often eat breakfast together.

“It’s going to make it real hard to leave for college. It’s like having seven brothers and sisters besides the real one I have,” student Jennifer Wirrick reflected during a literature class recently. The six other seniors are Martino Basile, Michael Elwin, Travis Rohrbach, Maya Aguilera Stevens, Heather Houston and Alison Williams.

Last month, they read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel “Cronica de una Muerte Anunciada” (“Chronicle of a Death Foretold”) about two brothers who kill a man suspected of taking their sister’s virginity. Students put on a mock trial of the two brothers, in Spanish.

“They’re very bright,” Mendes said.

However, most of the students talk in flat American accents. “I don’t sound like a native speaker,” admits Darrah McCracken. “The only way to get that is to be in a (Spanish-speaking) country for an extended period of time.” (But) I don’t think it reflects badly on the immersion program.”

At first, the McCrackens wondered if Darrah’s class would fall behind in math, science or English. The opposite happened. Immersion students surpass their peers in nearly all subjects. Most dramatically, the class of 1998 averaged in the 91st percentile in language arts in a national test last year, far above the district’s 62nd-percentile average.

Bellevue’s immersion students begin with a six-hour school day taught almost entirely in Spanish at Sunset Elementary, also called Puesta del Sol. Sixth-graders at Tillicum Middle School speak Spanish four hours a day, which shrinks to two hours daily in eighth grade and one at Newport High.

It’s necessary to cut back to a single hour in high school so students can complete other graduation requirements or enter math and science classes that vary with their abilities, Wollenberg says.

The program began amid gripes from some critics who considered Spanish immersion a waste of district money, Steve McCracken recalled. Students fought over playground use with other students who called them “the Spanish kids.” Later they rebelled against a middle-school teacher, and she left the program. The district tried mixing the class with Hispanic immigrants, and the students didn’t get along.

The McCrackens chose not to enroll their youngest child, Jeff, in the immersion program because of the turmoil, but they say they would do so now if they had a younger child.

Bellevue administrators have solved the program’s woes, but like other districts they still face a shortage of teachers fluent in a world language, yet also qualified to teach other subjects. Bill Gahan, a native of Spain, handles Bellevue’s whole middle-school load of 92 students alone.

Newport High’s Spanish-immersion seniors say the program has broadened their world view and that they’ll continue to use their bilingual skills. Grocery shopping in the Crossroads neighborhood, Travis Rohrbach often stops to help immigrants who can’t communicate with clerks in English. McCracken said when she’s at Whitman College next year, she’ll probably join its mentoring program for migrant workers.

Wirrick, who spent a month in Ecuador in 1996 helping a tribe make desks and books, misses the warmhearted culture she encountered there. “In Latin America you always look people in the eye and say, Good morning,’ God bless you.’ “

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