A mother came to Renton School District to ask how the school systems worked in the U.S.
She’d just moved here with her son from El Salvador. There, her son was in an elevated grade due to his proficiency in Spanish. But here, staff explained to her, he would need to start in second grade.
The boy’s advanced literacy immediately impressed Norma Cuevas, who was an English-language learner coordinator at the time.
“His vocabulary was like nothing I had ever heard before, from any student that age,” Cuevas said.
Four years of working with English-language learners, Cuevas sees a need for supporting those students. Kids like this one from El Salvador would have benefited from dual language — a program that honors developed speech and literacy, but still engages him in English.
Dual language is a form of bilingual education where students from English and Spanish-speaking homes will work together to achieve bilingual skills, academic excellence and cross-cultural competency. Spanish was chosen because it is the other most-used language in Renton schools, said Linda Hoste, district director of categorical programs.
Hoste was formerly a dual language director in Texas and Illinois. Her and Superintendent Damien Pattenaude said they’ve heard district families asking for this in Renton.
The program would start with two kindergarten classes in one elementary school, which would be chosen over the next year, and continue through 12th grade. How students will be selected, and if it would pull from kids around the district, will also be considered in the next year.
Hoste and Cuevas presented two models to the school board Dec. 12 — a 90:10 and a 50:50 — that represents the amount of Spanish taught compared to English. Cuevas has spent the last year researching this program as the dual language/world language facilitator, studying neighboring district’s work.
The 90:10 model, that Hoste recommended to the board, would be mostly Spanish, except for special classes like music or physical education. English would increase each year until even class time by fourth or fifth grade.
The 50:50 model would split time between two teachers for instruction in both languages from the beginning.
The recommended model immerses English-speaking students in Spanish. Cuevas said that it will also engage them with various cultures via art, traditions and literature. Spanish is also easier to decode because spelling and sounds align better, Cuevas said.
The 90:10 model would have higher costs due to the increased materials needed. Two classroom’s materials would cost $43,742 in the first year. This number includes library books and planning time for teachers.
Hoste said she doesn’t see it as much more than a traditional classroom. Grants for this type of program could cover $20,000 to $40,000 per year, as well as supplemental federal funds.
The 90:10 model has no detriment to English development in the long run, according to Hoste and Cuevas.
Hoste said that while there is a decline in English test results for those students at around second grade, called the second-grade slump, they level out again by fifth grade. She said the district will need to be clear with parents about this slump, as some parents might panic, or even want to withdraw their kid from the program.
One board director expressed concern that the English-speaking students would be immersed in Spanish at a pivotal time in their language development, and that it could cause stress. Hoste told the board there are many teaching techniques that can keep the class “risk-free” for those kids.
The 50:50 model wasn’t recommended, Hoste said, because it wouldn’t be as immersive in Spanish and might enable students to wait to speak until it’s time for the language they’re comfortable with.
Cuevas said from personal experience, being bilingual and bi-literate opens up more opportunities, and she wants to see that available to Renton kids.
This sends the message that the district values Spanish and challenges educational power structures, Hoste said.
A task force is in the works for next year, which will include more research, preparation and planning. Hoste’s earliest timeline for dual language in Renton is the 2020 to 2021 school year. They want to get bilingual teachers into their district, building relationships with other staff, before the program begins.
“We’ve been very thoughtful about this, and I think that’s why it’s taken so long to get to this point,” she said.