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WATERLOO, Iowa (AP) — The children gathered on the rug around Jaine Benson as she called on each of them, pointing to a chair or a T-shirt and asking them the color.

It’s a typical drill in the early days of kindergarten, and this Lou Henry Elementary School class looks like many others, The Courier reported . Where the class stands out is in how it sounds.

The yellow shirt is jaune, the red chair is rouge, the white screen is blanc while other shirts and objects in the room are bleu, vert and gris — French for blue, green and grey. The question Benson asks as she quizzes each student is in French, as well.

The new dual-language immersion kindergarten is taught in French for half of each day and in English for the other half. Benson and Kelley Lattimer co-teach the class, one of the few in Iowa.

The arrangement reflects the makeup of the class. Ten of the children are native French speakers whose families immigrated to Waterloo from Africa’s Democratic Republic of the Congo. The other 12 are native English speakers.

“It all came about because in the past few years we’ve had a large influx in Congolese students,” said Jake Youngkent, Lou Henry principal. “That’s been a growing population in our building for the past several years.”

Administrators were planning a dual-immersion class that would start in a Waterloo Community Schools’ building a year from now. They had visited a Spanish program in Marshalltown and had been considering a class in that language.

“But we had a series of events that kind of opened this door,” said Youngkent. “We were staffed for three sections of kindergarten, and it became apparent very quickly that we were going to need a fourth section.”

Benson, a certified French teacher, was serving as a district substitute. Lattimer, who had been a Lou Henry English language learners’ teacher, has a K-6 certification and a reading endorsement.

“Things just kind of fit together to start,” said Youngkent. Lattimer takes the the lead on writing the lesson plans and the English teaching portion. Benson leads the French portion.

The class started on Sept. 5, more than a week into school. Parent meetings were held the week before.

“We had 12 spots for English-speaking students,” said Youngkent, with 24 families interested. All 10 of the French-speaking kindergartners would be in the class, the others were chosen by lottery.

“It just seemed that we had the staffing, we had the students and we were very pleased that we had the parent support,” said Amy White, the district’s ELL facilitator, who was involved in the dual-immersion planning.

“It made sense to move forward,” said Charles McNulty, the district’s associate superintendent for educational services.

The new class is Waterloo Schools’ latest “signature program,” a term the district uses to distinguish offerings that are unique to the area. This includes the International Baccalaureate Diploma, a rigorous two-year college preparation program, and the Waterloo Career Center, which includes a growing menu of hands-on career and technical education courses.

“You don’t build academic achievement from intervention,” said McNulty. Rather, it comes from “opportunities for innovation and empowerment for our students. Those are called ‘signature programs.'”

He and other district leaders see the dual-immersion class in the same light.

“Too often, we don’t recognize diversity as a true opportunity for excellence — because that’s what it is,” said McNulty.

The district has an abundance of cultural and linguistic diversity among its students. “We have over 40 languages spoken districtwide, and I think just over 30 languages spoken that qualify for ELL services,” said White. Spanish makes up the largest group of native speakers after English.

“We’d be looking at our opportunities to develop a Spanish immersion pathway, too,” said McNulty. “I think we’ll have no problem filling a classroom with a dual-language focus” on Spanish.

Kara Rash, a West High School Spanish teacher, initially brought the idea of a dual-immersion program to McNulty and her principal. She saw the difficulties her students had learning the language.

“I came to the conclusion that they’re starting too late,” she said, and began researching the dual-immersion approach. “Your brain is capable (of learning in two languages), you just have to start at a young age.”

Rash was part of the group that studied the idea over the past year and visited Marshalltown’s program. “That’s where I really started seeing we can do this in Waterloo,” she said.

Elise DuBord, an associate professor of Spanish linguistics at the University of Northern Iowa, said she has seen the difference when a student is immersed in language study from a young age and sticks with it through high school.

“For the students who took four to five years of high school Spanish, they’re pretty good when they get to college,” said DuBord. But those who have been in an immersion program since kindergarten, she reported, often speak nearly as well as native speakers.

She noted that, along with Marshalltown, there are Spanish dual-immersion programs in West Liberty and Sioux City among Iowa school districts. There are also several Spanish immersion programs in private schools across the state. French is a different matter.

“As far as I know, this is the first French dual-language program,” she said, in the state. “That’s pretty hard to come by anywhere in the U.S.”

While there are many approaches to bilingual education and teaching English to non-native speakers, DuBord said research has shown the effectiveness of dual-immersion programs involving native speakers of both English and a foreign language.

“We sort of see that as the gold standard for language acquisition,” she noted. “It meets so many of the needs” for both student groups.

DuBord said a lot of research has shown the minority language speakers “actually learn English faster and they also are able to keep up academically with their peers at the same grade level.”

On the side of native English speakers, “there are many cognitive advantages to learning another language at a young age” — including helping to develop math and reasoning, social skills, and even emphathy, she said. “It also helps them to look at things from two different perspectives.”

As dual-immersion helps a young learner maintain a native language, that can preserve important connections to older generations in the U.S. or another country. And the increased familiarity of the native English speakers with a new language can encourage their families to get to know immigrants in the community.

“I think it can have a really positive impact on community building for the immigrant to get more involved,” said DuBord. “I think that can be really positive at a community level.”

The pair of Lou Henry teachers is still shaping their approach to instructing the students.

“Right now, I’m doing colors and some numbers and shapes,” said Benson. The French speakers are quickly picking up on what she’s teaching, but the English speakers don’t always. She is learning how to adjust instruction to meet each student’s needs.

“By the end of this month, I’ll know which kids learn better directly and which learn by inference,” said Benson.

Lattimer cites one effect of the dual-language approach in the class that is already evident.

“I have definitely seen the French kids have more confidence,” she said, because their native language is being taught.

As far as the English speakers, “they feel kind of special,” she said, since they are learning something different from peers in other classes.

Enzo Tchyombo, one of the French-speaking kindergarteners, talked about some of what he has been learning, including how to spell red and blue in English. He is also learning about appropriate classroom behavior.

“We are listening. We have to keep our eyes on the teacher,” he said. “When she tells us to go line up, we go line up.”

Olivia Iverson is learning, too. But she seems to recognize more is being asked of her kindergarten class than others at the school.

“I like learning French, but I like learning English more,” said Olivia, since she already speaks it. She should have plenty of time to grow in her understanding, though.

The intent with the current dual-immersion students is to provide the instruction throughout the elementary grades, keeping them together in the same class.

With the current Congolese population in the district, program developers would like to see another French dual-immersion kindergarten class start next year when these students move on to first grade. While Lou Henry has enrolled the most Congolese children in the district, White said Lincoln Elementary School has a large number of French-speaking students. Several other district schools have only a scattering of these students including Irving, Kingsley and Kittrell elementaries; George Washington Carver Academy and Hoover Middle School; and West High School.

Administrators note launching further classes depends on having enough interested families that are native speakers of one foreign language as well as needed staffing and financial resources. For this year’s class, that meant hiring another teacher, a cost that was paid for out of the district’s general fund.

“I think, being a signature program, we would look for how we might. … provide this to students across the district,” White said.

Youngkent added, “Our goal is to offer this pathway for kids through elementary and hopefully into high school.”

DuBord said “very few” dual-immersion programs continue into high school. Some may offer a class or two, but bilingual high schools largely exist in areas with much larger minority populations.

However the program is developed, she’s glad to see the approach emerging in Waterloo Schools.

“It gives that minority language more status,” said DuBord. As native English speaking peers are learning their language, the immigrant students are more likely to maintain ties to it.

“I think it becomes a big motivator for both groups of students to really succeed in both languages,” she said.


Information from: Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier,