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West LInn-Wilsonville district embraces bilingual curriculum, boosting multiculturalism throughout the grade levels

PMG FILE PHOTO - Students in the dual-language program receive half of their instruction each day in Spanish and the other half in English. The U.S. Census Office estimates that by 2050, more than 138 million Spanish speakers will live in the United States, with nearly one-third of American citizens speaking Spanish as their primary language.

In some sense, the students enrolled in Lowrie Primary School's dual-language program already are living in this multilingual, multicultural future.

One class in each grade level at Lowrie participates in the program, receiving half of their instruction in Spanish and the other half in English each day. Students in the program learn reading, writing and math in Spanish and science and social studies in English.

Lowrie ensures that in each dual-language class, 50 percent of the students are from predominantly Spanish-speaking families and the other 50 percent are from native English-speaking families.

"West Linn-Wilsonville hears loud and clear the importance of multilingualism for our community,"said Sarita Amaya, first-year Lowrie principal. "We live in a time where there is more multiculturalism. There is more ethnic diversity and linguistic diversity, and it's something that's really valued."

With both English speakers and Spanish speakers in one class, students learn from one another just by interacting on a daily basis. Students serve as language models for their peers.

The program also allows for more involvement for Spanish-speaking parents. Where it can be very difficult for a parent who speaks only Spanish to get involved in their child's English-speaking class, there are plenty of opportunities for them to do so in the dual-language program.

"One of the biggest benefits of having a dual-language program is that we're also able to draw from the linguistic resources of our Spanish-speaking parents," Amaya said. "Our Spanish-speaking parents can come in and volunteer and listen to kids read or do a read-aloud in Spanish."

While the entire school is not part of the dual-language program, Lowrie is considered a bilingual school. Amaya herself is bilingual in Spanish and English, as are all of the front office staff and at least one or two teachers at each grade level.

The district's commitment to language learning is not reserved for the dual-language program. Every student in the district has the opportunity to learn another language.

Primary school students in nondual-language classes receive regular instruction in either Spanish or Chinese. In middle school, students can take Chinese, French or Spanish. In high school, even more language classes are available all the way through the AP level.

The district places such importance on the opportunity for students to learn a foreign language because it recognizes the benefits that come from doing so.

"There's a lot of research around executive functioning and how learning a language really expands your brain in the sense that you're able to think about things through multiple perspectives naturally," Amaya said. "You're able to problem-solve different situations because your brain is set up to come up with different scenarios and contexts, and that comes from learning languages simultaneously."

The WL-WV dual-language program, which is in its seventh year, includes Trillium Creek Primary School in West Linn. The district's first class of dual-language middle schoolers currently are in sixth grade at Wood and Rosemont Ridge middle schools.

The program will grow to each grade level within those middle schools, and eventually to Wilsonville and West Linn high schools as the group of sixth-graders complete each school year.

So far, the transition from primary to middle school for the dual-language learners has been quite smooth.

"it's exciting to see the program expanding into middle school and to hear stories from their teachers and principal, saying 'Oh my goodness, here is an area where our students are really, really excelling,' and it's something we were a little unsure about in the beginning of the year," Amaya said.

"Because we teach math in Spanish, there was a wondering about to what extent are they going to be able to access mathematical concepts and experience success when their math instruction will be in English moving in to the middle school," she said. "Within a month, all of those wonderings and worries were put at ease because what students were demonstrating is that they were able to transfer what they had learned in math in Spanish very easily."

Since the program is popular, getting in to the dual-language program at either Lowrie or Trillium Creek can be difficult. The district holds a lottery each February for families with incoming kindergarteners. Lowrie accepts 13 students from English-speaking families and 13 from Spanish-speaking families to maintain the desired balance and class size.

Trillium Creek accepts a similar number of total dual-language students, but most, if not all, of them speak English natively and are learning Spanish as a second language.

Amaya said dozens of families enter the lottery each year, hoping for one of the 26 spots in Lowrie's dual-language program.

Because of its popularity, the district would like to expand the program, but a lack of qualified bilingual teachers has made it impossible for now.

"Our district has a vision of what we want dual language to look like from kindergarten all the way to 12th grade," Amaya said. "Part of that is making sure we have teachers with the endorsements in the language and the language and skills background and pedagogical knowledge to teach at any given moment all along the way."

Right now there simply are not enough teachers in Oregon with those credentials for WL-WV to expand the dual-language program at the primary level.

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