Bilingual Immersion Plan May Serve as Model

Education: the innovative program aims to teach Spanish-speaking and English-speaking students to be fluent in both languages.

Ventura County educators say they will be closely watching an innovative bilingual program for Spanish-speaking and English-speaking kindergartners at a Ventura elementary school–and may copy it if it proves successful.

Paid for with a multiyear federal grant, the program will be launched at Montalvo Elementary School this fall. It is designed to make students fluent in both languages by the time they finish fifth grade.

There are only a few such programs in Ventura County, although there are more than 100 statewide, school officials said. But interest is high among parents who want their children to learn more than one language, suggesting that other Ventura County campuses may soon follow Montalvo’s lead, educators said. Montalvo Principal Cynthia Medina said the school’s language program may become a model for how to do it.

Called “dual-immersion” because students learn their native language as well as a second language, the teaching method has been less controversial than other forms of bilingual education.

Traditional bilingual programs allow Spanish speakers to gradually make the transition from Spanish to English, with the goal of becoming proficient by the fifth grade. Opponents have criticized that as taking too long. But two-way immersion programs generally have received support from both sides of the debate because they are viewed as an enrichment opportunity for all students.

In fact, the state Board of Education allowed a few schools to continue their dual-immersion classes after Proposition 227 led to a reduction in bilingual education in California.

The program depends on an equal number of children who speak English and those who speak Spanish. Montalvo’s program will start with two kindergarten classes, each with 10 native English speakers and 10 Spanish speakers.

>From kindergarten through second grade, the students will be taught mainly in Spanish. From third through fifth grade, students will receive half of their instruction in Spanish and half in English. Students also learn from each other, administrators say.

By the time they graduate from the K-5 school, they will be able to read, write and speak in both languages, educators say.

Qualified bilingual instructors will teach the classes, Medina said. And each year, the school will add one grade until the program extends through fifth grade.

Cliff Rodrigues, board president for the Ventura Unified School District, said that parent response has been overwhelming. There are only a few spaces left, and the school plans to start a waiting list soon, school officials said.

“You can see the excitement on the parents’ faces,” said Rodrigues, who is also director of bilingual programs for the Ventura County superintendent of schools office. “English-speaking parents realize this is an opportunity for their kids to learn a second language.”

As soon as Joanne Wakelee heard about the program, she attended a parent information meeting and enrolled her 5-year-old son, Andrew.

Wakelee, who learned Spanish as an adult, said she wanted Andrew to learn a second language as a child. She also wanted him to learn about another culture. Though Elmhurst Elementary School is closer to her house, Wakelee decided it would be worth it to sign him up at Montalvo.

Wakelee, a high school teacher, is trying to give her son a taste of Spanish this summer. But she still knows that Andrew will be surprised when the teacher speaks primarily in Spanish.

“He may be shocked that he’s not really understanding during the first few weeks,” she said. “But then I think he’ll just absorb it like a sponge.”

Ventura administrators visited schools in Long Beach, Santa Monica and San Luis Obispo to get ideas on how to plan the curriculum.

Any student entering kindergarten in the Ventura Unified School District is eligible to attend, but students from the Montalvo attendance area will be given first priority.

The program will be funded by a five-year federal grant. Each year, the school will receive about $ 200,000, which administrators will spend on technology, teacher training and programs aimed at getting parents involved.

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