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The City Journals

No matter the language — happy birthday to the state's successful dual immersion program

Mar 19, 2019 01:13PM ● By Julie Slama

At Draper Elementary in 2017, second-graders performed the traditional fan dance as part of school’s annual Chinese New Year celebration. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama|[email protected]

生日快乐 — bon anniversaire — feliz cumpleaños — happy 10th birthday to the dual immersion program at many Utah elementary schools.

Eleven years ago this legislative session, former Gov. John Huntsman signed Utah’s International Education Initiative into law, funding dual immersion programs in Chinese (Mandarin), French and Spanish beginning in the 2008-09 academic year at 15 elementary schools, including some within the Salt Lake Valley communities.

Since then, German, Portuguese and Russian have been added as the number of DLI schools soared to 224 programs from St. George to Logan, reaching 43,000 students, said Jordan School District Elementary Dual Language Immersion Content Administrator Michele Daly, who oversees her District’s nine elementary programs.

Principal Scott Jameson, who recently was moved to a DLI Spanish elementary in Sandy — Alta View — said he immediately could see a benefit for students.

“It gives kids a chance to be challenged,” said the principal in Canyons School District, which houses eight elementary DLI and 11 secondary programs. “They put in a great effort in school, especially with the opportunity to learn Spanish while studying math and science. They are learning to persevere, even if it’s difficult, and develop that skill and a language they can use their entire lives.”

The start

Elementary DLI programs in the area are 50/50 immersion programs where students spend half their school day learning the English language and half the day learning math, science or social studies in the target language.  There are two teachers, one who teaches in English, and one who only speaks the language to students after the initial months when first-graders are enrolled in the program.  

First-grade English teacher Michael Vierra at South Jordan’s Monte Vista Elementary said the popularity of the DLI program has grown and he is teaching 25 to 28 students per class.

“I reinforce what students may not understand initially in Mandarin, but they quickly learn and have an awesome experience learning a language, usually from a native speaker and teacher,” he said. “They become independent very quickly and realize if they don’t know how to do something, they have to be able to learn and express it in the language.”

Many of the DLI language teachers are on a visa to teach in Utah, meaning that there is a turnover; so English teachers help them learn the ins-and-outs of the program, Vierra said.

“There always is some adjustment from how they teach in China or Taiwan, and they have to learn to American style of living, but the benefits of having a native teacher outweigh any challenges,” he said.

Eastlake Elementary, in South Jordan, like many schools, have host families help DLI teachers from China and Hong Kong set up their housing, transportation, banking, get their social security cards and driver’s licenses when they arrive a couple weeks before school begins to attend state dual immersion training.

“They’re usually on a three-year contract so there is a constant learning curve,” second-grade teacher Teresa Wang said.  “They learn to teach more interactive, bring in their culture, not just give lectures.”

In her own classroom of second-graders, Wang focuses on childhood activities.

“Kids are getting a broad vocabulary of daily words that help with conversation. They’re able to put those together in simple sentence structure so it’s easier for them to speak.  By the time these students are in third and fourth grades, most surpass their peers academically in both languages and are able to converse in Chinese,” she said.

Colleague Christina Ma said she’s been impressed at the level of her fifth-grade students.

“They’re at the immediate level where they can talk about places they want to travel or food they want to eat and even debate and express their opinions,” she said.  

While she may use easier vocabulary for students to understand science concepts — “science has harder vocabulary” — Ma said they are able to pick up math easily and understand their equations of multiplication, division and fractions.

“Research has shown that these kids aren’t losing their math or English skills, but just learning another language alongside them,” she said. 

The State DLI website supports that claim, stating that “immersion students perform as well or better than non-immersion students on standardized tests of English and math administered in English.” 

It continues to say DLI students develop greater cognitive flexibility, are more attentive, with better memory and problem-solving skills.

Ma said her students are pro-active learners.

“The students practice talking, even if it is to a parent who doesn’t understand or a stuffed animal. If they have siblings who speak the language, they’re even going further,” she said.

Mike Ward has his children in Chinese dual immersion at Ridgecrest Elementary in Cottonwood Heights.

“Dual immersion is remarkable,” he said. “By the time they’re in third, fourth and fifth grade, they understand and are speaking quite fluently. I can’t understand Chinese, but my third-grade daughter is understanding what her older brother is saying.”

Monte Vista parent Carrie Newbold agrees to the benefits of siblings conversing in the language.

“I love the opportunity my kids have to share with each other and talk outside of class,” she said. “It’s made the school schedule easier to have everyone on the same track and same schedule.”

Newbold also said that students have created a bond with their classmates.

“These kids are together from first grade all the way through.  They form a family because they’re in it together.  We have friendships with parents, who band together to help welcome the Chinese teachers.  Many parents can only help in the English classrooms since they don’t know the language, but we do what we can to help them settle in. It’s just a powerful experience for these kids to learn and have a better understanding of the culture,” she said.

To every advantage, there can be a disadvantage.  

At Lone Peak Elementary, Kristy Bastian has her younger children in the program, but her seventh-grader was not admitted because of not enough space, she said.

“They take siblings first and since there is limited room, he didn’t get in,” she said.  “He wanted to learn and needed the challenge. It’s an incredible program, but frustrating when there isn’t a benchmark test or anything to help students get in.”

Last year, Midvale Elementary fifth-graders perform “Chinelos de Morelos” during the school’s third annual Cinco de Mayo celebration. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

With many elementaries, parents need to apply in February before first grade for the program. Applying doesn’t mean guaranteed entrance as many schools have a wait list.  While there is no test to enter, preference is given to siblings who have someone already enrolled in the language program.  Entrance generally is limited to first grade, although if a student transfers from another DLI school or shows proficiency, Daly said there have been exceptions in Jordan District.

Eastlake’s Wang agrees the fast-paced program isn’t for all students.  

“Some kids can’t pick it up and struggle tremendously.  They need a strong base in their first language.  It can be common for those with learning disabilities to not do as well, but it’s up to the parents to decide to apply to enroll them,” she said.

Megan Morrison, who has a son at Lone Peak and feels lucky her third-grader has “an amazing opportunity,” said she may not enroll a younger sibling because she doesn’t see it as a good match for him.  

“He isn’t at the level of other kids and I can see with speech problems, he could be frustrated learning Chinese.  I don’t want to take an opportunity away from another student,” she said.

Secondary DLI

As the first DLI students progress through school, dual immersion is added to that grade, meaning many of those first-graders in 2008-09 are now juniors in high school and have fast-tracked to take the Advanced Placement Spanish exam to earn college credit.  

Murray School District Assistant Superintendent Scott Bushnell said that upon successful competition of the AP Spanish exam, students can begin the Bridge Program, a partnership with public and higher education, which was supported by SB152, that awarded $300,000 to the University of Utah to launch the program.

At Murray High, sophomores, juniors and seniors enroll in a team-taught course, with both a University of Utah professor and a Murray High teacher instructing the course work.

“Students are able to complete upper division language course work and can finish their senior year of high school two courses shy of a minor in the language,” he said.

Jordan’s Daly said that their comprehensive abilities are “amazing.”

“Their proficiency levels are so high, they are truly immersed and have that high level, they’re so lucky and don’t realize the gift we’re providing,” she said.

Morrison has a student who has been in the program since first grade and currently is a sophomore at Alta High in Sandy.

“It’s a unique opportunity for him to be learning from a University of Utah professor in his high school class.  He’s had incredible experiences as the program has developed and I’m just amazed at what he’s accomplished in the 10 years,” she said.

However, Midvale Middle School Chinese teacher Karma Lambert said that students can still learn languages if they didn’t enroll in DLI.

“You don’t have to start in first grade,” she said. “Students who begin learning in sixth, seventh and eighth grades are still quick enough to learn languages and be able to carry on basic conversations in the language by the time they finish middle school. In general, they won’t be as far as long as their dual immersion peers, but they can still learn the language and have those positive cultural benefits.”

DLI Benefits 

When Sarah Erwin’s family was looking to move into the Sandy area from St. George, she looked for a DLI Chinese school.  They selected the Lone Peak neighborhood so her kids could learn Mandarin.

“I speak Mandarin and at the time, St. George didn’t have dual immersion,” she said.  “My kids needed more challenge and there are tremendous benefits of learning a second language.”

Ridgecrest Elementary parent Brooke Moench said she has seen great progress academically for her children.

“They tend to learn at a higher pace, and so, they have kept on task,” she said. “The teachers are ensuring students are learning by reteaching and reinforcing in English what they learn in Chinese so the languages are supporting one another.”

Many parents, teachers and principals point to cultural benefits as school programs may include celebrating Chinese New Year or Cinco de Mayo or even having a word of the day for the entire studentbody to learn or rooms, such as the library or cafeteria, labeled in the target language.

Canyons District’s Butler Elementary students who are studying French immersion, not only sample macaroons and learn about impressionism and Claude Monet and other parts of French culture, but they get a taste of other countries’ culture, art and music during its annual World Night.  Last year, for example, students wrote their names in Arabic, made Native American replica pots, learn about typical life in the Fiji Islands and more. 

“It’s important that the community opens our eyes and celebrates our diversity,” Principal Jeff Nalwalker said.

At nearby Midvale Elementary, students celebrate Mexican Independence Day, Dia de los Muertos, Cinco de Mayo, and Mother’s Day with cultural activities, food, dances and song for the entire studentbody.  

“As a whole school, it’s important that we are learning other cultures, and are inclusive,” Principal Chip Watts said.

Murray District spokeswoman D Wright said she also has seen culture be introduced in the District’s Spanish DLI classrooms.

“I have visited in the Horizon DLI classes many times and see ongoing examples of music, dance and art integration through fun and captivating activities,” she said.  “I also see exposure to a variety of related ethnic foods and culturally-related holidays incorporated into the awareness and curriculum in the grades.”

Several Chinese schools celebrated the Year of the Pig during Chinese New Year festivities that included programs, activities, food, singing, dancing, acting and learning the history of the celebration. Some schools also celebrate the Moon Festival in the fall.

Erwin said that through her school’s Chinese New Year program, it offers all students an opportunity to learn about culture.

“It’s a fun time to explore another culture and for the whole school to come together,” she said.

Monte Vista parent Corby Robins said the opportunities her second- and third-grader have had in DLI have been impressive.

“The teachers are top notch,” she said.  “They teach about the culture and pique students’ interest in China through food, games, stories and telling how they celebrate holiday with the family.”

At Midvale Middle School, eighth-grader Eric Snauffer said, “it’s the best day of the year” as he learned to make Chinese dumplings with classmates afterschool.

K-12 Chinese outreach coordinator Shin Chi Fame Kao, of the Confucius Institute at the University of Utah, said that they support many cultural Chinese events at schools, and have even given grants to the first schools who had Chinese programs, including Canyons’ Lone Peak and Draper elementaries.

“It’s important that children learn these customs of China as they learn the language,” she said.  “It’s a time to understand families and communities celebrating together.”

Lone Peak Principal Tracy Stacy said there is value in understanding other countries’ culture.

“When children understand and value each other’s differences, it allows them to not only see differences and accept them, but also appreciate the way we are all similar,” she said. 

Eastlake Principal Suzie Williams agrees.

“I love the culture piece dual immersion brings to our school,” she said.  “It draws families together who are interested in their children becoming bilingual. Even if the parents aren’t versed in the language, they’re learning words and customs from their children.  It isn’t a classroom where they sit and listen to the language. They’re learning the vocabulary and language while involved in enriching, engaging cultural activities.”

The Future of DLI

Many programs continue to add a grade as DLI students’ progress, like in Murray District. However, there are no plans to expand to another language at another school at this time, Bushnell said.

“In a district our size, a cohort of 60 students allows us to run two elementary classrooms of 30 DLI students in each class,” he said.

However, at nearby Midvale Elementary, there are plans to expand the classes, Watts said.

Currently, there are about 1/3 of the school enrolled in the Spanish DLI program and he said there are plans to increase that to 2/3.

“Our data shows that students are achieving better in reading and math and at the same time, learning Spanish for those who are not already Spanish-speakers,” he said.  “The language development as they learn a second language is helpful as they practice their native language.  It’s a very engaging program for our students.”

Alta View’s Jameson appreciates the DLI program in its entirety.

“The DLI was created as a comprehensive pathway so students in elementary can continue in middle school and high school.  It doesn’t just stop, but it prepares students for their future, for global careers,” he said.

Jordan District’s Daly agrees.

“We’re preparing them for the global market and job opportunities in the 20th century,” she said.  “