The Jefferson Elementary School is looking for a few kindergarten students who speak English but want to learn Spanish.

In Santa Ana Unified, where 90 percent of students are Hispanic and 75 percent speak limited English, native speakers of English are an endangered species.

They are especially valuable now at Jefferson, which seeks 15 English-speaking kindergarteners to maintain a dual-language immersion program that depends for its success on students who speak the two languages.

“We’re finding less and less English-only speakers in this area,” said Jefferson Principal Pam Mayle, who is encouraging students to enroll before classes start Sept. 7. “Anything less than 50-50 (English and Spanish speakers) and the program gets watered down.”

In the dual-language program, kindergarten and first-grade children spend 90 percent of the day learning in Spanish and 10 percent in English. By fifth grade, the students spend half their time learning in each language. The mix of native languages is vital, teachers say, because students reinforce classroom language lessons with conversations on the playground or after school.

Jefferson parents said they enrolled their children in the dual- language program because they believe in the benefits of being bilingual.

“You’re giving your children an opportunity you never had, and it doesn’t cost you a penny,” said Kaye Colon, whose daughter Laurel is learning Spanish. “I think it’s sad that more people in America don’t learn other languages.”

Many of the English-speaking students would attend other schools if Jefferson didn’t offer the dual-language program.

“That’s the only reason she goes to school in Santa Ana,” Pat Morales-Martinez, a resident of Orange, said of her daughter Ruby, 7. “She would probably go to school in English here and I’d foster her Spanish at home.”

For Laurel Iwaki, 6, the dual-language program keeps open the door to understanding her mother’s Spanish-speaking background and her father’s English-language roots.

“She was born with two wings,” Laurel’s mother, Gloria Iwaki, a native of Mexico and former elementary school teacher, said in Spanish. “By learning the two languages in school, she can take off.”

More than 30 other California schools offer similar dual-language programs, including Las Palmas Elementary School in San Clemente and Gates Elementary in Lake Forest. But the other Orange County schools face the opposite demographic problem as Jefferson: a waiting list of English speakers and a dearth of Spanish speakers.

National studies have found that dual-language immersion benefits students in their academic, cognitive and social development. But it helps some students more than others.

An analysis of test scores at Gates Elementary, for example, shows clear benefits of the dual-language program for native English speakers, who consistently outscore the national average in reading, math and other tests. But progress was less dramatic among students whose first language was Spanish, as measured by test scores and the rate of becoming fluent in English.

That data fueled criticism among critics of bilingual education, who view dual-immersion programs as an attempt to circumvent the mandate to teach in English, under Proposition 227. Gloria Matta Tuchman, the Santa Ana teacher who helped write Prop. 227, said the education of Spanish speakers often suffers in dual immersion.

“I hope they aren’t setting these kids up for failure or using them as guinea pigs,” said Tuchman, a Republican candidate for Congress next year. “We have enough problem getting test scores up in English. Why should we try to teach them in another language?”

For more information on the Jefferson dual-immersion program, call the [email protected]

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