Spanish-language kindergarten will be at Highland Elementary and add a grade every year

PMG PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - HIghland Elementary School has a tradition of a big welcome the first day of school. This year theyll also welcome their first Spanish dual immersion classroom. The Gresham-Barlow School district is launching a Spanish dual-language immersion program starting with kindergarten students this fall, with hopes to expand the program to other languages.

"This will benefit the community," said Katrise Perera, superintendent of the Gresham-Barlow School District, of the new language program.

The program will be housed at Highland Elementary School, and roughly half the students will be English speakers and half Spanish.

"We are so excited to have this," said Shawnda Sewell, Highland's principal.

In immersion programs, students are taught all subjects for most of the day in a language other than English. For example, students learn math, science and literature in another language. The goal is to develop full bilingualism and biliteracy.

The Highland program will use Spanish for 80% of the day, and 20% of teaching will be in English.

Sewell noted the 20% primarily will be in areas such as physical education, music and "recess, of course. They'll do recess in their chosen language."

The goal is to have English speakers become fluent in another language. The other goal is for Spanish speakers to retain their fluency in Spanish.

"They will develop a second language, which is such a sought-after skill set," Sewell said.

The program will start with two kindergarten classrooms and a grade will be added each year. The program will continue at Clear Creek Middle School and then Gresham High School, the district said.

Families signed up to be part of the program, which for now is limited to Highland students. Sewell expects the two classrooms to be full and any openings will be filled by lottery from a waiting list.

"For five students this will be their third language," Sewell marveled, noting the dual-immersion program will be a regular part of the school. "We will work really hard for this to not be a separate program."

The curriculum will be the same as in other classrooms, just taught in Spanish with Spanish-language materials, Sewell said.

With 498 students, Highland was selected to start the dual-immersion program because the school has a lot of Spanish speakers already. About 45% of Highland's students are Hispanic, 41% white and 10% black or mixed race. Ten languages are spoken at the school at 295 N.E. 24th Ave.

In addition, Sewell says the Highland staff had "a strong, strong desire to have this language program."

These popular language immersion programs have existed in other school districts for many years. Portland Public Schools, for example, offers immersion programs in Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Spanish and Vietnamese.

Some people are wary that a student taught in another language won't do as well reading and writing in English. However, studies show they do as well on standardized tests and reading and writing in English as their peers who went through school being taught only in English. Some studies have found learning in another language actually deepens a student's understanding of English.

"Students who participate in Dual Language Immersion demonstrate high levels of academic achievement and develop an appreciation for and an understanding of diverse cultures as they progress through the grades," the Gresham-Barlow district said in an explanation of the program.

"This will have a big impact on our community," Perera said, "but we have to start small."

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