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Language immersion a priority for Bellevue School District

Puesta Del Sol Elementary is the region's only language immersion program in a public school system where students start learning Spanish in kindergarten. (KIRO Radio/Jillian Raftery)

Right away, visitors will notice that Nicole Perriella’s second grade classroom in Bellevue is a little different.

At Puesta Del Sol Elementary, instead of reading, writing, and arithmetic, it’s “leyendo, escribiendo, y las matemáticas.”

It’s the region’s only language immersion program in a public school system where students start learning Spanish in kindergarten. They’re fluent by the fifth grade, and go on to take college courses while in high school.

The program has become so popular, the district recently added a Mandarin Chinese dual language program at Jing Mei Elementary in Bellevue.

Heidi Lamar, English Language Learners Curriculum Supervisor for the Bellevue School District, said administrators and parents have seen first-hand the results of bilingual learning: better test scores, cognitive aptitude, and high confidence in later years.

It’s the parents who have seen the impact of these programs and insisted on adding more languages and college-level classes.

“Eighty-nine languages are spoken in our district, so it’s a very, very diverse population. And we have a lot of parents who know, first-hand, the benefits of learning another language fluently – not just being able to order food in a restaurant, but being able to read and write and do college-level work,” Lamar said.

Now the Bellevue School District is focusing on what’s called the “dual language” program, which Lamar said has gone a long way to help under-served, minority communities.

In dual language schools, half the students are native English speakers and half the class speaks a different language, like Chinese or Spanish.

For Puesta Del Sol students who speak Spanish at home, having half the school day focused on their native language helps them keep up. They feel comfortable learning subjects in a language they’re familiar with.

Lamar, as Curriculum Supervisor, also said learning both English and Spanish simultaneously can eliminate the need for a separate ESL, or English as a Second Language, classroom later on.

She said the research shows that the end result of this bi-lingual approach is higher graduation rates.

“They’re just simply crunching the numbers of who graduates and how, and what their scores are – hundreds and hundreds of student files,” Lamar said. “And their stuff really shows this huge benefit that this has, especially with the Latino students.”

In fact, she said it can actually keep the crime rate down by preventing kids from joining gangs.

“And that has to do with a sense of belonging to the community,” Lamar said. “If you’ve grown up in a house where everybody speaks a language, and then your language isn’t that strong, it’s easy to identify with sort of the bad element, or the element that’s speaking the language that you’re stronger at, rather than with your own family. So, if you’re more bilingual and you can talk to your grandma and your grandpa, and you can talk to your parents fluently and you can have deeper conversations, it’s less likely that you’ll choose the element of the gang life.”

She said it also helps non-English speaking parents stay involved.

Right now, three Bellevue schools have dual language programs and there’s demand for even more. However, there are no plans for immediate expansion.

Lamar said they build they curriculum from scratch and she first wants to make sure it’s still working as the students get older.

She also acknowledged that there are some parents who don’t want their children to be bi-lingual. And that choice has to be honored too.

Although she hopes that, over time, that will change.

“There’s just all these little pieces that add up to – it’s better for kids to be bilingual,” she said.

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