HAILEY • As first-grade teacher Adan Sanchez taught his students about syllables, he spent most of the time talking in Spanish.
But occasionally during the Tuesday morning lesson, he switched over to English if a student got confused.
When students broke into groups, some used pieces of paper to string together different sounds.
Next week, the Woodside Elementary School students will start reading text in Spanish.
“We’re actually moving along pretty quickly,” Sanchez said.
The English and Spanish languages, he said, share a lot of consonant sounds.
Sanchez said the theory behind dual immersion is that students will transfer language skills between English and Spanish.
And “the kids learn from each other,” he said.
On the interactive whiteboard in Sanchez’s classroom, a few Spanish words were written in a child’s handwriting next to hand-drawn pictures.
“Zapato” was written next to a picture of a shoe. Nearby, a carrot was labeled with its Spanish name, “zanahoria.”
Nearly everything in the classroom — from posters to the daily schedule — was written in Spanish.
Half of the first-grade students in the dual immersion program were next door learning in English.
Teacher Jill Lecrone helped one student sound out the name “Sam” as part of a story they were reading.
A Program for a Growing Need
Since the school opened its doors about seven years ago, Woodside Elementary School in Hailey has seen a shift in demographics.
This year, 51 percent of the students are English language learners.
And out of those 181 children, 108 are enrolled in the dual immersion program.
Molly Michalec, the school district’s dual immersion coordinator, said the 12-year-old program is also one way of reaching out to English language learners.
Under the Blaine County School District’s program, students learn in both English and Spanish.
In each class, there are native English speakers and native Spanish speakers.
At each school, the dual immersion program is run through a collaboration of two teachers per grade level.
It’s the only program of its kind among south-central Idaho schools.
With growing enrollment in the dual immersion program, there are some large decisions on the horizon for the Blaine County School District.
Over the years, the school district’s dual immersion program has grown significantly.
In 2001, there were just 60 students in the program. Now, there are more than 600 in kindergarten through the fifth grade.
And there are about 200 dual immersion students in middle and high school.
The school district is looking at the future of the program at the elementary school level.
The first meeting about the topic was in February 2011, and many more meetings followed.
Michaelec said changes are being considered because of the growth of the program, as well as a disproportionate number of special needs students in some classrooms.
At Woodside Elementary, fourth-grade dual immersion teacher Deborah Van Law said she’d like to see the program continue strong.
“I just want to see the opportunity for kids to participate,” she said.
Last month, the board of trustees voted to look at two options.
The first: Woodside Elementary would become a magnet school. It would serve just dual immersion students.
Non-dual immersion students in the Woodside attendance area would go to Bellevue or Hailey elementary schools.
One dual immersion class per grade level would remain at Hemingway Elementary School in Ketchum.
Tifny Lago — co-PTA president at Woodside Elementary — has a first-grader at Woodside who isn’t in the dual immersion program.
That could mean changing schools if the first proposal is chosen.
Lago said Woodside Elementary is a great school and “the thought about going somewhere else is a bummer.”
She said the magnet school concept makes sense, but has pros and cons.
“You’re not going to make everyone happy,” she said.
The second option: One classroom of dual immersion per grade level at each of the district’s four elementary schools.
That would mean one fewer class per grade level.
Woodside Elementary Principal Brad Henson said it’s a tough decision.
“We want to make sure we do it right,” he said.
If Woodside becomes a magnet school, it would lead to a more bilingual culture in the school building.
Henson said it would also mean dual immersion elementary school teachers would be under one roof.
School district spokeswoman Heather Crocker said current dual immersion students will be able to stay in the program.
In November, the school district’s board of trustees will look at results of a survey to see which option community members prefer.
Crocker said a decision could come as early as December.
Kathleen Diepenbrock has seen how the number of English language learners has grown over the years.
Diepenbrock — who has been an English as a New Language (ENL) teacher in Blaine County for 18 years — said just 4 percent of students in the school district were English language learners when she stared.
Since then, there has been a “pretty steep growth curve,” she said.
Now, the school district has the largest percentage of “Limited English Proficient” (LEP) students out of the state’s 31 largest school districts.
Last year, 23 percent of the district’s students in the third through 10th grades were LEP.
Diepenbrock — who is one of several ENL teachers at Woodside Elementary — said all schools in Blaine County have seen changing demographics.
The shift mirrors the population of the Wood River Valley.
Crocker said hospitality and construction remain some of the largest industries in the area.
New homes are being built in the area, she said, despite the economic downturn.
What’s Happening at Woodside?
On a rainy Tuesday morning, students arrived at Woodside Elementary School with jacket hoods over their heads.
Once inside the school building, Henson greeted each student with a high-five.
Over the past few years, the school’s population of English language learners has hovered around 50 to 60 percent of the student body.
“What that says is classrooms look fundamentally different for teachers,” Henson said.
He said it can be a huge learning curve for teachers, but the district has provided training on how to work with students who speak English as a second language.
Also, Woodside Elementary has more employees who are fluent in Spanish than ever before.
Henson estimated there are about 15 this year — from teachers to front office employees.
With changing demographics, Henson said one challenge is making sure Latino parents have a voice at the school.
Woodside Elementary organizes community nights to encourage parents to come to the school.
Programs are presented in both English and Spanish.
Lago said she hasn’t noticed a large increase in English language learners.
She said it’s great for her first-grader to have classmates who are native Spanish speakers.
“As a parent and a PTA member, the population at Woodside is so diverse,” she said.
With a large population of English language learners, the dual immersion program also plays a role.
Dipenbrock said there are only 73 LEP students who aren’t in the dual immersion program.
It allows the school’s ENL teachers to work with a smaller number of students and prioritize which ones most need the help.
Fourth-grade teacher Katharine Oliver — who has a non-dual immersion classroom — said the changing demographics have been a good thing.
But with the dual immersion program growing, she doesn’t have as many English language learners in her class this year.
She said changing demographics at Woodside have led to a richer classroom environment and challenged teachers to grow.
“It just adds a beautiful, cultural enrichment to our lives,” she said.
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