COSTA MESA, CA—First-grader Katie Younglove wants to play with the Hispanic kids down the street.

So she’s learning their language.

“Right now, I don’t know what they are saying,” admits the lanky youngster, a student in the bilingual education program at Kaiser Primary School in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District.

Every day, side-by-side with Hispanic students, Katie is learning the basics of Spanish. Many of her classmates, meanwhile, are working to improve their English.

Bilingual education cuts both ways at Kaiser.

Katie is one of several English-speaking students at Kaiser who is participating in a pilot bilingual program that groups English-as-a-second-language students with those whose native language is English.

The class follows the general first-grade curriculum and instruction is in both languages, teacher Lynne Bercaw said.

The Youngloves’ desire to have their daughter learn alongside non-English-speaking students symbolizes a growing attitude among many parents in school districts throughout Orange County: They want their children to start learning a second language at the earliest possible age.

Other districts with similar programs include Capistrano Unified, Santa Ana Unified, Orange Unified and Garden Grove Unified.

“Our society has a majority of minority groups,” said Elizabeth Parker, a member of the Orange County Board of Education. “It is really important for my blond-haired, blue-eyed child to feel comfortable around different cultures. ” Parker’s son, Lucas, is in his second year of bilingual education at Kaiser.

Still, some English-speaking parents are slow to recognize the benefits of bilingual learning, she said.

In Patsy Mitchell’s fourth-grade classroom at Sonora Elementary in Costa Mesa, students learn their three R’s in a cultural melting pot: The class is almost equally divided among Spanish-, Vietnamese- and English-speakers.

The benefits for each of the groups are tremendous, Mitchell said, as children from the different ethnic groups work to help each other learn.

In the Capistrano Unified School District, bilingual classrooms are considered a plus because of the dual language acquisition and cultural exchange, said Jackie Price, a spokeswoman for the district.

“For some Anglo students, this is a look at the real world,” she said.

For now, Kaiser student Lucas Parker sees learning Spanish as a way to win friends and influence people.

“I can play with all kinds of people now,” Lucas said. “Plus, I can teach my little brother how to say more than just adios. “

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