Seaford schools will introduce language immersion program

By Lynn R. Parks

After visiting language immersion programs in Utah recently, West Seaford Elementary School principal Susan Nancarrow is excited about the start of a similar program in her school next year. The Seaford School District plans to start the program to teach Spanish in two of its elementary schools, West Seaford as well as Blades.

"This will change the whole feel of our school," said Nancarrow, in her first year as principal at West Seaford. Even though the program will be limited to 100 kindergarteners, 50 in each school, weekly school-wide activities will expose other students to the Spanish language and literature, she said.

"We will make an effort to make sure that the Spanish program spills over to the rest of the school, so that our children learn to be much more open to other cultures."

Under the approach being considered by the district, the language-immersion children will split their day between two classrooms. In one classroom, the teacher will speak only Spanish. There, the children will study math and science, as well as Spanish literacy.

In the other classroom, the teacher will speak only English. There, the children will study English literacy and social studies. The English-speaking teacher will also reinforce what the children are learning in science and math, as they need it.

The district hopes that half of the participants in its program are native-English speakers and half are native-Spanish speakers.

"Our goal is not just for the kids to be bilingual, but for them to be bi-literate," Nancarrow said. "We want them to be able to not only speak, but to be able to read and write in Spanish as well as in English."

The district plans to expand the program as the first participants advance through the grades. So by the time children who enroll in the program next year are in the fifth grade, each school will have six grades of language-immersion classes.

The program is being offered through Gov. Jack Markell's World Language Expansion Initiative. Already, schools in four districts, including John M. Clayton Elementary School in the Indian River School District, offer the program.

Costs associated with the language immersion program will be paid by the state.

According to the Delaware Department of Education, there are several advantages to the language immersion program. Its students will be better prepared for competing in the global economy, the office says. "They will be employable," Nancarrow said. "I can tell you that if I got an applicant for a teaching position who was bilingual, that name would go right to the top of the list."

The students will also be able to complete college-level coursework in Spanish while they are in high school.

The DOE lists several sociocultural benefits: Immersion students show a more positive attitude toward different cultures and demonstrate a greater appreciation of people who have different cultural perspectives and practices, it says.

In addition to becoming proficient in the immersion language, students develop an enhanced understanding of their native languages. They "perform as well or better than their non-immersion peers on standardized tests of English and mathematics," the DOE says.

"Immersion students develop greater cognitive flexibility, demonstrative increased attention control, better memory and superior problem-solving skills."

Fred Genesee is a professor of psychology at McGill University in Montreal, a city where French is the official language but where many people speak English. He has done research on how children learn language and on language-immersion classes.

In a paper written a couple of years ago, Genesee said that research has shown that immersion students achieve the same level of competence in their native language as traditionally-taught students. They also do as well, and in some cases better, in math and science as traditionally-taught students do.

At the same time, they "achieve significantly higher levels of functional proficiency" in the other language, when compared with traditionally-taught students. That applies to speaking as well as to reading and writing.

In addition, in Canada, "immersion students retain a strong sense of identity with English-Canadian culture while acquiring an understanding and appreciation of French Canadians and French-Canadian culture that is not seen, in general, in non-immersion students," he said.

According to the Center for Applied Linguistics, based in Washington, D.C.: "From the standpoint of academic achievement, over three decades of studies consistently show that immersion students achieve as well or as better than non-immersion peers on standardized measures of verbal and mathematics skills administered in English."

Nancarrow said that in the kindergarten and first-grade classrooms that she visited in the Granite School District and the Park City School District, both in Utah, students were speaking Spanish "like it was their native language." Fourth- and fifth-grade students were reading and writing in Spanish.

As for that first day of kindergarten, teachers in Utah told her that "there are no more tears than usual" for students in the language-immersion classes. "We will not allow a child to be afraid," Nancarrow said. "On our first day, there will be very supportive people there."

Hanging in the foyer at West Seaford Elementary are about a dozen flags, from all different nations. They represent the countries from which students at the school hail.

"We have students here from all over," Nancarrow said. "This program will show them that we value their culture and their differences, and that we value them as a person. Years ago, if you spoke Spanish, it may not have been seen as a strength. But now, we live in a global society. We want to make sure that all of our children are able to compete."

For your information Applications are still being accepted for the kindergarten language-immersion programs at West Seaford Elementary School and Blades Elementary School. Parents can register children who will be 5 by the end of August at the district office, 390 N. Market St., Seaford. Kindergarten registration will be held May 16 and 17 at Frederick Douglass Elementary School, 1 Swain Rd., Seaford. To sign up for registration, call 629-4587, ext. 500. Parents who have questions about the language-immersion program can call West Seaford, 629-9352, or Blades Elementary, 628-4416.

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