For the past four years, Columbia Elementary School in Woodland has included a dual language program, which this year was expanded to teach English and Spanish to students in kindergarten through third grades.
Because of the success of the program, Woodland Public Schools plans to expand it to the middle school in the future.
The current program at Columbia has the capacity of up to 44 students at each grade level, with the goal to maintain a 50-50 enrollment between native English speakers and native Spanish speakers, according to a news release from Woodland Public Schools.
“Keeping the program balanced is key as the students help teach one another their own native language,” said David Starkey, the principal at Columbia Elementary School. “By maintaining an even enrollment of native speakers, we effectively create a teaching-learning environment where students help each other and thereby internalize the lessons, as studies show teaching someone else will make for more effective learning for both the student teaching and the student learning.”
The teachers facilitating the program have also observed the effectiveness of the program firsthand, stated the release.
“Students own their learning because they’re part of the process of teaching it,” Maria Rodriguez, a first grade teacher in the program, said. “By using their knowledge to teach other students, they become more engaged and part of the learning process.”
Jill Thoeny, a kindergarten teacher in the program, agreed.
“Additionally, the act of teaching each other elevates the students’ grasp of their own native language too,” Thoeny stated in the release. “The act of teaching brings agency to their learning because they’re driving their own learning.”
Finding bilingual teachers and scheduling them are among the biggest challenges in running a dual language program in a public elementary school, stated the release.
“We have to create schedules for dual language in addition to our monolingual students to ensure all of our teaching staff receive as much planning time as possible,” Starkey said. “Also, with other districts throughout the state offering dual language programs, the competition for bilingual teachers can be intense.”
As a result of the competition in finding bilingual teachers, students spend half the school day learning English and the other half learning Spanish.
“By dividing the day in half, we can have one fluent Spanish teacher work with an English-speaking teacher so both teachers can have twice as many students,” Starkey stated. “Where a teacher would typically have 22 students all day long, two teachers working together can accommodate the entire 44 student grade by teaching all of them half of each day.”
To ensure success of the program, all reading materials are printed in both English and Spanish schoolwide, the release said.
“We love having the program at the school and are in the process of making Spanish part of the school’s culture in a variety of ways, including reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance in both English and Spanish each morning,” Starkey said. “The program brings cultural awareness to everything we do throughout the school and we’re constantly finding new ways to add even more elements of Hispanic heritage to every student’s school day.”
School spirit from the children has grown thanks to the program, according to Thoeny.
“I’m watching our entire school transform into a multilingual, multicultural environment,” she said. “With the students modeling the program throughout the school, our whole school is proud of having a bilingual program on campus.”
Outside of school, parents and family members have noticed the dual language program’s impact, stated the release.
“Parents are watching their students become multicultural citizens of the world,” Thoeny said. “The idea of incorporating elements of the many different cultures we have in the United States to become a multicultural citizen is a key part of our program’s mission.”
Rodriguez realizes the program is not only great for the students’ education, but also gets them more in touch with their culture, too.
“In traditional monolingual school, students who grow up in a Spanish-speaking culture lose some of their heritage since they don’t have to learn and use Spanish in school,” Rodriguez said. “Our native Spanish-speaking families are excited their students are reading, writing, and using Spanish each and every day.”
After four years, teachers and students are still noticing the program’s benefits.
“I feel honored and privileged to be able to be a part of this program since the beginning,” Rodriguez said. “As a native Spanish-speaker myself, having the opportunity to use the language with almost everyone has been truly special.”
Because of the success of the program at Columbia Elementary School, the release stated the program is becoming more popular as time progresses. Woodland Public School plans to expand it into the middle school in the coming years as well. The district received a $100,000 two-year grant to provide additional classroom materials and curriculum, provide additional training to teachers, and to expand the program to Woodland Middle School when the time comes, the news release stated.
“The biggest question we get is from families who are curious what the program’s going to look like at the middle school,” Starkey said. “We’re excited to receive this grant because it helps us do just that — plan for the program’s expansion when our elementary (dual language program) students move on in their academic careers.”
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