Santa Paula elementary school officials are busily planning the county’s first Spanish language “immersion” program for a group of kindergarten children who will be instructed primarily in Spanish for the next five years.

Beginning next September, the kindergarten class at Glen City School will be taught almost exclusively in Spanish. Students will get only 25 minutes each day of English instruction.

The class, which will include reading, math, social science and science instruction, differs from other bilingual programs where the aim is to help students communicate in English.

Instead, the English-speakers in the Santa Paula school will be encouraged to become fluent in Spanish.

Within five years, the program will be expanded from kindergarten to fifth grade, with more English instruction, Assistant Supt. Bonnie Bruington said. By the time students reach fifth grade, instruction will be evenly divided between the two languages.

The first class of 30 Santa Paula kindergartners will be evenly split between English and Spanish speakers, Glen City Principal Bonnie Switack said.

“There’s no way a child who knows English well is going to forget his English,” Switack said. On the other hand, “if you want them to learn more English, make them more literate, make them more likely to read, and the English will take care of itself,” she added.

Glen City School is one of three magnet schools in the district that offers special academic programs as part of efforts to achieve more racially balanced schools. The other two magnet schools are Bidell and Barbara Webster elementary schools.

About a third of the 500 students at Glen City School have limited skills in English, and about half come from Latino families, Switack said.

After Fillmore, Santa Paula has the highest proportion of students who come from Latino families, said Cliff Rodrigues, bilingual education coordinator for the Ventura County superintendent of schools.

Of the 3,200 students who attend Santa Paula elementary schools, about 70% are from Latino families.

While other programs emphasize English in bilingual classes, Santa Paula is unusual in giving equal treatment to both languages, Rodrigues noted. Similar programs are being tried elsewhere in San Diego and Los Angeles, he said.

“Spanish has not been a well-accepted language. It’s the language of poor countries,” Rodrigues said. “They’re giving a different kind of prestige, and I think that’s super.”

Glen City teacher Avelina Ramirez will begin teaching the first class of kindergartners even before the first day of school. She plans to explain the program to parents and kindergartners enrolled in the class during the summer.

Students will be organized in small groups with equal numbers of bilingual, English-only and Spanish-only speakers. Despite the emphasis on Spanish, students will not be ignored if they ask questions in English, she said.

A native of Santa Paula who gradually lost her Spanish-language abilities while attending Santa Paula schools, Ramirez said she will draw from her own early memories communicating in another language.

“I grew up at a time when Spanish was forbidden in the schools,” Ramirez said.

But today, Spanish “is so important especially living here in Southern California where the Latino population is just growing,” she added. “A child that has two languages is a lot more intelligent than a person who knows one.”

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