First class of dual-immersion
students ready for middle school
By Tessa Thornley
MORONI—Moroni Elementary hits a major educational milestone this year when the first class of dual-immersion students moves on to middle school.
In 2014, the school started its first class of Spanish immersion students with the incoming first graders. When those students move on to middle school this year, it will be the first class in Sanpete County to have gone through all six years of elementary in a dual-immersion program.
Principal Stacey Peterson began the implementation of the program after one teacher, Brenda Candia-Lara, approached her with the idea.
A year or two earlier, Candia-Lara had recognized how many English as Second Language (ESL) students were struggling in school. Many of them ended up forgoing their native Spanish to be able to learn the standard curriculum.
She wanted her own children to be bilingual, so she visited a dual-immersion school on the Wasatch Front. After having a positive experience observing, Candia-Lara went to Peterson saying, “I want this for my girls.”
In 2013, the school got the green light from the district to start the application process.
“We had to have assurances if we wanted to do it,” said Peterson, “We went and observed a lot of schools. We talked to community members, teachers, parents and district leaders.”
Candia-Lara became the first Spanish-language instructor for the first-grade class in 2014-15. When those students passed onto second grade, they became the first Spanish immersion class of second graders, as a new first-grade came into the program, and so on until their sixth-grade year.
“They were really our guinea pigs,” said the current first-grade instructor, Carmen Torres, “We learned right along with them.”
Moroni Elementary became one of two entirely dual-immersion schools, meaning that every student in every grade is in the program.
“In other schools, it can cause elitism and separation for some of the students to be in Spanish immersion and others not, but here we are all equals,” Peterson said.
With each new first grade added, the school receives $10,000 to buy supplies.
“But it doesn’t go far,” said Peterson. The school purchases textbooks and Spanish reading material. But the teachers themselves create other worksheets and posters. The funds also cover summer training for both the Spanish-speaking and English-speaking teachers are required to take.
One of the advantages of the program in Moroni is its use of the two-way immersion for the Spanish students. Two-way serves both native English speakers and native Spanish speakers by allowing both to learn a second language.
The more prevalent model in Utah, one-way immersion, serves a student population with mostly native English speakers trying to learn their second language.
About 40 percent of students at Moroni Elementary come from Spanish-speaking families. Fifth grade Spanish teacher Patricia Zavala says they thrive in this program.
“They feel confident in communicating (in both English and Spanish), and dual immersion has given them this confidence.”
Occasionally, Zavala, a native of Peru who is teaching at Moroni on a guest visa, has to u
se her students as translators into English.
“It is so helpful,” she said, “and they are eager to do it!”
Through the last six years of the dual-immersion program, Moroni has seen more and more the equalization of ethnicities. Hispanic and Caucasian students are no longer segregated in the lunchroom.
Peterson said native Spanish speakers are now equal with English-speaking students in taking leadership roles in classes.
Carmen Torres, who started teaching first grade this year, explained that she thought that adding a language to learning would be hard for the children being introduced into the program, especially those learning Spanish.
“But you see their brains develop and they are able to speak in this immersive environment,” Torres said. “They come in not knowing anything but completely take off.”
As Moroni continues to adapt and refine its dual immersion program, they hope to continue seeing success for both the native English and Spanish speakers.
“This is a great program,” says Peterson, “but the benefits might not show up while they are here. It takes five to seven years to master a language. But we believe we are giving them greater tools for future success.”