Dual Language Program promotes proficiency in both Spanish and English

La Casita second grader Sigrid Viera reads from her text book during science class Tuesday at La Casita Elementary School in Clovis. Ten years ago it would be hard to find a student speaking Spanish in the classroom. (CNJ staff photo: Eric Kluth)

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

Upon first glance, the colorful ink numbers in Francis Duarte’s classroom, printed on cardboard, appear to be typical decorations in a typical kindergarten classroom — except below each numerical value is the corresponding Spanish word.

In this classroom, Spanish is spoken 90 percent of the time; the goal is literacy and proficiency in not one language, but two — Spanish and English.

Duarte’s class is just one example of the Dual Language Program at La Casita Elementary School, a program experts call a trend in border state education.

Meli Galavan’s daughter is a student in La Casita’s Dual Language Program. Although Galavan, who was born and raised in Clovis, is Hispanic, she was 18 when she taught herself how to speak and write Spanish.

“I was raised in a foster home where we were not allowed to speak a word of Spanish,” said Galavan, who struggled for years to regain the heritage she lost. Now she wants to make sure her own three children don’t face those same hurdles.

The little Spanish that Rhonda and George Griese know they learned through their son Jacob, the only fair-haired child in Duarte’s kindergarten class on Tuesday. Choosing La Casita’s dual language program seemed a natural and logical option for the Grieses.

“It’s important for when he gets older,” George Griese said, his arms folded, “for employment. The more you know, the more places you can go.”

As the demand for bilingual speakers in the workplace skyrockets, Mary Ayala, assistant dean of liberal arts and sciences at Eastern New Mexico University, said schools like La Casita will be an increasingly popular choice for parents who want to prepare their children for a more global, multi-cultural world.

“At ENMU, we have a whole separate track of classes for native and heritage Spanish speakers,” said Ayala, who defines a native speaker as someone who was born in another country and migrated to the U.S. and a heritage speaker as someone born in the States.

Many of Ayala’s students come from a background where Spanish is spoken in the home — she said it is not uncommon for a student to speak Spanish fluently, but lack the corresponding written and literacy skills. Tailoring classes to fit the this burgeoning population, she said, is important, especially for a university, like ENMU, with a student population that is over 50 percent Hispanic.

“Immigrant populations across the U.S. were encouraged to completely adopt a second language. That attitude has been a disadvantage for the United States. We are one of the only countries where it is socially frowned upon to be anything but monolingual,” Ayala said. “Ten years ago it was not uncommon for me to hear that a student was discouraged from speaking Spanish, but this generation has moved beyond that.”

The climate for bilingual learners in the United States is still not as welcoming as it should be, according to David Briseno, principal of La Casita.

“In this part of the world, intelligence is equated with speaking English. And kids get that message. In our school we work hard to combat that message by giving both languages, Spanish and English, elevated status,” Briseno said.