KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. – Priscilla Dunlap already knew such words as “dog” and “cat” when she got to kindergarten, but now “manzana,” “agua” and “pez” are also part of her vocabulary.
Dunlap is one of 26 students attending Mills Elementary School’s dual-language kindergarten, a new class this year.
For half the students in the class, the primary language is Spanish; the other half speaks English. Lessons are taught in Spanish in the morning and in English during the afternoon.
The dual-language kindergarten is part of the Klamath Falls City Schools Title VII bilingual program. The district received a $ 400,000 federal grant to start a program and continue it for three years. The program will focus on kindergarten level in its first year and will build each year until students are learning in a dual-language environment through second grade.
“Each child in this class is learning a new language,” said Sandra Nielsen, the dual-language kindergarten teacher. “Hopefully, after three years the children will be proficient in two languages.”
Nielsen said the hardest part of her job is getting past the language barrier.
“Teaching this class is almost like acting,” she said. “We sing lots of songs. I use lots of pictures and gestures to try and get the words across.”
The program has been so popular that 10 students had to be turned away from the class, said Principal Bill Leary, and there is a waiting list for next year.
“The two-way language program shows the most promise so far in accomplishing all the educational objectives of the school,” said Gray Hargett of Portland, who is evaluating the program.
The program at Mills is one of seven immersion programs throughout the state, but most of the other programs focus on second and third grades.
Homework is an important part of the class. But the students are not the only ones to whom Nielsen assigns homework. Parents receive letters and other materials from Nielsen in Spanish, and are asked to spend time practicing the language at home with their children.