Spanish-English immersion classes bear rich fruit

Wy’east Middle School teacher says, ‘It’s never a deficit’ to have a second language

By Katie Gillespie, Columbian Education Reporter

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To the untrained ear, it’s hard to follow Wy’east Middle School teacher Amy Matsumoto’s humanities class. After all, at a predominantly white school in central Vancouver, it’s not common to hear a teacher explain entirely in Spanish how to study and draw artifacts.

But that’s the thing: These students’ ears are trained, and well-trained at that. At 11 and 12 years old, most of the students in this group of sixth-graders are already in their seventh year of Spanish, thanks to the Evergreen Public Schools dual Spanish-English immersion program.

This group of students is the first cohort in the program, which began in 2011 when they were in kindergarten at Marrion Elementary School. About half of this class of 21 are native English speakers, and the other half are native Spanish speakers. Most students have been together since the beginning. Students enrolled in the program went from 90 percent of their day being taught in Spanish and 10 percent in English in kindergarten to half Spanish and half English by fifth grade.

At Wy’east, these now-middle school students attend one 80-minute period a day taught entirely in Spanish. By the time they reach high school, students will likely participate in some Advanced Placement Spanish courses, Spanish for special purposes such as medical translating, or a third language, according to the district. Students who graduate from the program could also be eligible to earn a Seal of Biliteracy, a mark on students’ diplomas and high school transcripts indicating the student has mastered two or more languages.

Catherine Carrison, who manages the district’s English language learning department, said the state recommends the program as the best for Spanish-speaking English language learners. Fostering students’ native Spanish helps support their English learning along the way, while providing English-native speakers early opportunities to learn a new language will help those students compete in a global economy as adults. And, she noted, students in the program tend to be high academic achievers in other subjects as well; research indicates that learning a second language improves students’ cognitive ability while offsetting dementia and Alzheimer’s later in life.

“No child should have to lose a language to learn a language,” Carrison said.

The program also demonstrates a significant departure from Matsumoto’s own family history. Matsumoto’s father, the son of migrant workers, was born in Texas and grew up in Toppenish. She said he was beaten at school there if he didn’t speak English. As an adult, trying to leave his Spanish-speaking heritage behind, he moved to Spokane, married a woman who spoke only English — and only rarely spoke his native language.

“It was very broken,” Matsumoto said.

But Matsumoto embraced her family’s history, studying Spanish in school, including a study abroad trip to Guadalajara in Mexico, and has taught Spanish, English language learning classes and now this humanities class at Wy’east.

“It’s never a deficit,” she said of having a second language. “It’s always an advantage.”

And, she noted, as a student sprung up to answer the classroom phone as it rang, she believes her students’ respect and understanding of Hispanic and Latino cultures has given them a “deeper level” of empathy and sympathy.

“They’re always asking how they can help or what they can do,” she said.

On Tuesday, students in Matsumoto’s class went from station to station, inspecting, drawing and taking notes on shells, ceramics and fossils — entirely in Spanish.

Sydney Cervantes, 11, said she’s comfortable speaking with her classmates because she’s known them for so long. Between taking notes about the model skull she was inspecting, she talked about the class’s inside jokes, and their shared love of music.

“It’s honestly really easy to talk to each other because we’re all kind of a family,” Sydney said.

Esau Zavala, also 11, hopes to be a police officer when he grows up. He said having both languages will help if he ever has to arrest someone or speak with a family who only knows Spanish.

“You can help other people with another language,” he said.