Stepping into the dual language kindergarten classroom at Aguilar Elementary School, you’ll notice it’s slightly different from ordinary learning spaces – instead of one classroom, two classrooms are connected by a door in the middle.
While that might seem counterintuitive and at times disruptive in a traditional kindergarten setting, it’s conducive to the new program in Tempe Elementary School District.
Students in the dual language program spend half of their day learning in English, and the other half learning in Spanish. One group of students spends their mornings doing lessons in Spanish with teacher Kenia Federico, while another group of students does lessons in English with teacher Jordan McCoy. Throughout the day, students switch teachers and receive instruction in the two different languages.
Video courtesy Tempe Elementary School District: A Day in the Life of TD3 Dual Language Students
To recruit Federico and McCoy, the human resources department searched for teachers who were qualified to communicate and teach students in English and Spanish and comfortable working within the dual language program’s format.
“Think of having two sets of kindergarten students, one in English and one in Spanish, and they get their instruction in Spanish in mathematics and reading and then they flip flop, so then they get instruction in English in mathematics and English,” said Dr. James Driscoll, superintendent of Tempe Elementary School District.
A bill put forward by Rep. John Fillmore during last year’s legislative session would have removed barriers that prevent English learners from participating in dual-language programs.
House Concurrent Resolution 2005 would have allowed public district and charter schools to establish dual-language immersion programs for both native and nonnative English speakers. It was approved in the Arizona House of Representatives, but it was held in the Arizona Senate. The bill would have repealed sections of statute created when Arizona voters approved Prop. 203, also known as English Language Education for Children in Public Schools Act in 2000, and direct the Arizona Secretary of State to submit this proposition to voters in the next general election. Proposition 203 was put on the ballot in several states in 2000 by a Silicon Valley businessman, and Arizona is the only state that has not repealed it since then.
Video: House lawmakers support including English Learners in dual-language immersion
Arizona schools increase language instruction in response to workforce needs, global economy
Dual-language programs grow in Arizona public schools
Families interested in Aguilar Elementary’s dual language program for their students filled out and returned a packet before registration started on Jan. 14, 2021, to be considered for the pilot program that began this school year.Priority for the program was given to students within the Aguilar Elementary attendance area, who had prior dual language program experience, children of district employees, and any other child based on eligibility with age and primary language.
When selecting students for the dual language program, the school aimed for a class made up of about 50% native English speakers and 50% native Spanish speakers, according to their parent handbook.
The dual language program is at capacity this year with 50 students in the class, Dr. Driscoll said.
“After one year, they’ll be able to count in both English and Spanish and know their Spanish letters. Spanish also has additional sounds and letters they need to learn, so they are going to learn those. They’re also going to be able to do shapes, they’re going to be able to count – they’re going to be able to do all that in English and Spanish,” McCoy said.
The dual language program has seen success, the teachers said. They said that their students have been picking up quickly on the materials taught in both classes, and they are switching seamlessly between the two classes.
“I think teaching them this way is actually easier for me. Because they’re learning two different languages and they have to switch and they’re getting up, they’re moving, they’re more focused,” McCoy said.
Federico said while her students are learning Spanish, she still allows them to speak English in the classroom. This is because while some of her students are from Spanish speaking households and understand Spanish, others are only having their first exposure to the language.
“They can understand a whole lot of things that I say – they can follow directions; they can go get something for me. They can do a lot of things, except speak it. They have the vocabulary, but they don’t speak it in complete sentences or anything yet,” Federico said.
Besides teaching the students English and Spanish, the teachers to deliver hands-on instruction, which is especially important because some of the students may have experienced pre-school completely virtually or had heightened screen-time if they did not go to pre-school.
“A number of the families asked about how much screen time there would be versus how much paper pencil,” said Matthew Strauss, principal of Aguilar Elementary School. “In the past, they wanted more screen time. But there were a few families that were adamant that they wanted more paper pencil.”
“They felt like after last year older siblings had gotten too much screen time. And they wanted more kind of hands-on active stuff on paper pencil and less screen time. So, I think it’s been a pretty good balance between the two,” Principal Strauss said.
The program’s mission is to “provide an environment that promotes biliteracy, bilingualism, and biculturalism for students. The underlying goal is to prepare students for the future with the abilities to listen, speak, read, and write in two languages and foster appreciation for various cultures,” according to the parent handbook.
“I know what increasing the primary language does for students, and that will only be a positive impact on those children,” said Charlotte Winsor, vice president of the Tempe Elementary School District Governing Board at a meeting in September.
This mission has become increasingly important, especially in Arizona where about 20% of the more than two and a half million households in the state speak Spanish, according to recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
“The interest that we’ve seen from families and families who aren’t necessarily or who wouldn’t have otherwise been Aguilar families, you can see that they value the importance of being bilingual,” Principal Strauss said.
Arizona’s percentage of Spanish-speaking households is much higher than the national average of 12.6%. About 20.6% of people in the U.S. speak a language other than English.
“I think this program will help those students be successful in life as they grow up, because I think our world is moving more to a multilingual instead of monolingual society, so students in their global workforce will have to know more than one language. This gives them a fighting chance at that,” said Dr. Driscoll.
“For students that come from Spanish speaking families, it actually helps them to come to school and feel a kinship and feel comfortable because they’re able to speak in a language that is familiar to them in their home lives,” Dr. Driscoll said.
The dual language program is halfway through its first year at Aguilar, and it has seen strong support from the community and students’ families, Dr. Driscoll said. Information about applications and registration for the dual language program for next school year have already been posted on the school’s website.
The goal would be to have the students who were in the pilot program continue in this dual language setting until the eighth grade, Dr. Driscoll said.
Principal Strauss said that as of now, the plan is for students in the program to continue until at least the fifth grade. After that, there would have to be conversations about the logistics of where the dual language program would be hosted, since Aguilar only goes up until the fifth grade.
“They’re so proud of themselves,” McCoy said. “It’s great to see. There’s not a day that they don’t come from one class or the other that they’re not excited. So, it’s really good to see.”