Hundreds more Salem kids to get a chance for bilingual Spanish-English classes in fall

Kindergarten student Grace Garcia works with Olga Cobb, Salem-Keizer’s Assistant Superintendent, on a math worksheet in a dual language class at Grant Community School on Thursday, May 12, 2022 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

About 250 more elementary school students will be able to attend class in both Spanish and English starting next fall as Salem-Keizer School District leaders begin a significant expansion of the district’s dual language program.

Four elementary schools – Chavez, Four Corners, Keizer and Washington – will have dual language classes starting next fall, adding to the three district elementary schools already offering the program.

The district’s school board unanimously passed a resolution Tuesday in support of the expansion.

“There’s a lot of language richness in these schools that we can take advantage of to build the program that serves not only our language learners, but also our students that speak English at home who want to access both languages,” said Olga Cobb, assistant superintendent for elementary schools, during an April 26 presentation to the school board.

The dual language program mixes native English and Spanish speakers starting in kindergarten, with a bilingual teacher teaching mostly in Spanish. As students get older, teachers progressively incorporate more English into the day.

The program aims for students to become fluent in both languages, and continue to take academic classes in both English and Spanish into middle and high school.

About half of district elementary schools already offer bilingual classes geared toward the substantial number of native Spanish speakers enrolled in local schools. Students in those classes are taught mostly in Spanish in kindergarten and eventually progress toward nearly all English by fifth grade.

But in a dual language program, students are mixed and have the opportunity to interact with peers from a different cultural background. English-speaking students learn Spanish too.

A daily schedule with color-coded activities in English and Spanish in a third grade dual language classroom at Grant Community School on Thursday, May 12, 2022 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Cobb has spearheaded the expansion. She said dual language is a better model because it doesn’t separate students based on native language and gives kids more chances to learn from each other and practice language.

“There’s this camaraderie that happens and this partnership that happens with kids because they both know the strength of the language that they each bring, and it just creates an amazing community environment,” Cobb told Salem Reporter.

The expansion was spurred by substantial interest from parents, as well as years of research from around the U.S. showing students enrolled in dual language classes perform better on English assessments and in other classes, in addition to achieving fluency in two languages.

Graduation rates in local schools lag for students who aren’t fluent in English by high school. But students who aren’t native English speakers and become fluent in English before they get to high school graduate at one of the highest rates in the district – 84% in 2021, compared with an overall graduation rate of 81%.

Expanding dual language classes is something the district’s bilingual teachers have sought for years, said Tyler Scialo-Lakeberg, president of the Salem-Keizer Education Association.

“Most of them have been wanting this,” Scialo-Lakeberg said. “Any time you strengthen a child’s native language, they’re going to be stronger in the second language that you’re learning.”

The district has previously focused on classes for Spanish-speaking students because it didn’t have enough bilingual educators to add dual language programs to more schools, Cobb said. Adding native English speakers to classes effectively doubles the number of teachers required who are fluent in both languages.

But district programs intended to incentivize employees or former students to become licensed bilingual teachers are paying off, Cobb said. The district has hired enough bilingual educators recently to expand the program. Cobb said she hopes to offer dual language at all elementary schools that currently have bilingual classes for native Spanish speakers in the next five years.

Bilingual teacher Maribel Cisneros works on a math lesson in Spanish with her dual language kindergarten students at Grant Community School on Thursday, May 12, 2022 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Currently, dual language elementary programs are offered at Grant, in central Salem, and Harritt and Myers, both in west Salem.

Grant’s program is the oldest in the district, starting about 20 years ago. Students can enroll in kindergarten or first grade and remain in the program their entire time at Grant, and ideally through high school graduation.

Principal Marc Morris said the first years are challenging for students trying to pick up a second language or learn math in their non-native language.

“They start with a big learning curve,” he said.

But by about second or third grade, he sees a shift. Native English speakers are more comfortable in Spanish and vice-versa.

“They start to take off,” he said. “Those kids typically outperform other kids later … When we send them to middle school, they’re some of our top performers.”

Grant has seen growing interest from parents in recent years, he said. Families apply from across the district to send their kids to the program, which has about 40 spots. This year, he’s gotten about 55 applicants.

Currently, 581 elementary students, 344 middle schoolers and 449 high schoolers are enrolled in district dual language programs. 

Starting next fall, Four Corners and Washington will add kindergarten dual language classes, while Chavez and Keizer will add kindergarten and first grade – a total of nine new classrooms between the four schools.

As students grow older, those schools will gradually expand dual language to older grades so students will have the program for all of elementary school.

District leaders are then planning corresponding expansions of middle and high school programs so those students can continue dual language as they progress in school.

Currently, dual language students go to Parrish or Walker middle schools, then on to North or West Salem High Schools.

That will next be expanded to Waldo, Stephens and Claggett Creek middle schools, and McKay and McNary high schools.

Cobb said as the district has planned for the expansion, she’s personally called families on the waiting list for the Grant program to let them know they can keep their child in an elementary school closer to home and still get dual language classes.

“The goal is that parents can have this in their neighborhood schools,” Cobb said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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