VISTA — Ellos están aprendiendo lo básico. The translation is: They are learning the basics.
These kindergartners are the first of their kind at Grapevine Elementary School as they embark on the first-ever dual immersion language program in the Vista Unified School District.
Fifty-two youngsters enrolled in the program, which kicked off this year as part of the district’s push to close the academic achievement gap and address a community need.
Principal Rafael Olavide said his staff and the district prepared for one year to figure out how to best deliver the program. In the end, a 50-50 directive was found to be the best, meaning 50 percent of class work is in English and the other half is in Spanish.
“We are definitely building both ways,” Olavide said. “Being bilingual and biliterate … both academically and socially in both languages is a huge advantage.”
It took some convincing of the parents, but the results since August have been overwhelmingly positive and word has already spread. With just two classrooms dedicated this year, Olavide and district Director of Communications Lisa Contreras said it is likely a third class will be included next year, possibly more.
Parents must decide at the kindergarten level to enroll their child in the program, Olavide said. It’s too difficult to catch up for students attempting to join later in their academic careers.
Long term, Contreras said, the goal is to spread this program throughout the district. And another bonus for Vista Unified is the program is attracting students from outside school and district boundaries.
“This started about how to close the academic achievement gap, that was one (reason),” Olavide said. “We saw there was an interest in the community, especially with English and Spanish. And we saw Grapevine would meet the requirements.”
As for the program, students are shuffled between the classrooms of teachers Lara Sims (English) and Rebecca Tartre (Spanish). When students are in Tartre’s classroom, they are only allowed to speak and read in Spanish and vice versa when in Sims’ class.
A natural byproduct, the teachers said, is the students help translate for their peers, yet students also learn to think on their feet and find the words, even if limited, to communicate.
“We are set up so that we have a theme for each few weeks,” Sims explained. “There is a lot of bridging of what they are learning. There is a very strong relationship among the kids, and collaboration and willing to help each other and work together.”
Additionally, each classroom replicates themes to teach the students, but different exercises and activities are used. Also, Tartre works with students in smaller groups, while Sims uses a more traditional approach instructing the whole group.
The students are split into separate classrooms for half the day, then switch. But when in Tartre’s class, she will only speak Spanish.
“If they think I speak English, they won’t try to speak Spanish,” Tartre said of the English-only students. “But if they think I only speak Spanish, they feel so motivated that in order to communicate with me, they have to try to use Spanish.”
Olavide, a native of Madrid, said one of the challenges was relaying to parents the benefits of dual immersion. Studies, he said, show between a student’s third- and fourth-grade years, they begin to test higher.
Part of the vision is to run the program not only through elementary school, but until a student graduates high school and earns a seal of bilingual of literacy from the State of California. Not only do studies show cultural and academic understanding and success, but it opens more career opportunities, Olavide added.
“The word is out and families are interested,” Olavide said.