11 schools add dual language programs in Salem-Keizer

Rebecca Sanchez’s oldest child doesn’t speak much Spanish, which she saidmakes it hard to communicate with family when they return to her native Michoacán, Mexico to visit her parents.

She wants her three kids to learn English in school so they can be successful, but said retaining Spanish lets them “carry the roots” of their family forward. It’s a hope she has for her youngest, Samantha, who’s now starting second grade at Chavez Elementary.

There, a dual language program mixes native Spanish speaking students with native English speakers, with classes taught in both languages. The school introduced the program last year for kindergarten and first graders, and has now expanded it to cover second grade too.

“It’s a very good program,” Sanchez said, speaking in Spanish after dropping Samantha off for her first day of school Wednesday.

The district has dramatically expanded the program this year, giving hundreds more students across the Salem-Keizer School District a chance to learn in both languages starting in kindergarten.Eight new elementary schools have such classes for kindergarten and first graders this year: Auburn, Eyre, Hayesville, Kennedy, Lamb, Lee, Scott and Yoshikai. Chavez was one of four elementary schools added last year.

In total, 24 of the district’s 65 schools now offer dual language instruction, from elementary to high school. Claggett Creek Middle School, and McNary and McKay high schools also have new programs this year.

Many elementary schools, including Chavez, previously had a bilingual program, where native Spanish speaking students are taught primarily in Spanish starting in kindergarten. In those programs,more English is incorporated each year. By fifth grade, students spend about half the day learning in Spanish and half in English.

The dual language program is similar, but combines native Spanish and native English speakers into one class. To make that possible, the district has had to hire significantly more bilingual educators, an effort that’s been in the works for years through programs to train Salem graduates and classroom aides who are interested in teaching.

“It’s very important you’re very proud of speaking two or three languages, OK?” Olga Cobb, assistant superintendent for Salem-Keizer, told a room of Chavez students on the first day of school. Cobb, the school’s former principal, is bilingual and has pushed the expansion of the district’s program for years.

“Speaking two languages is a superpower,” she assured students in Spanish.

The district’s efforts earned praise from Charlene Williams, the new director of the Oregon Department of Education, who visited three classrooms at Chavez Wednesday on the first day of school.

“That is such a powerful tool,” she told a room of third graders. “It’s good for your brain and helps you learn and helps you be a great community member and helps you in terms of all the opportunities that lie before you want to go to college or get a job.”

Williams acknowledged in an interview the state’s current school assessment structure doesn’t accurately reflect the reading abilities of students in dual language programs, which only offer tests in English.

Oregon students take their first state standardized test intended to gauge how well they can read in third grade. Students in bilingual and dual language programs are at that point receiving 60% of their classroom instruction in Spanish.

Williams said the education department is working on an overhaul of its assessment framework over the next few years which will look at factors like language of instruction “so that we don’t reduce our students down to a score.”

Andrea Castañeda, Salem-Keizer’s new superintendent, sees the district’s dual language efforts as key strength for the district, and said in an interview she’s “wildly enthusiastic” about the expansion.

“I’m just really eager to showcase it as a model in the city, as a model for the state,” she said.

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

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.