Phoenix Elementary School fourth-grader Isai Espana works on his lessons with the help of teacher Joellen Meyeroff during class Friday. pennell photo - Bob Pennell

Phoenix Elementary tweaks language immersion program

Second-graders Jennifer Camargo and Brandy Mena hunch over their notebooks in their morning class at Phoenix Elementary School, copying a fill-in-the-blank sentence in Spanish from the blackboard.

After lunch, they'll switch gears and hear a lesson in English.

It's a program that's proven popular for English-speaking students as well as for newcomers to the country.

Native English-speaking parents covet the limited slots in the Phoenix-Talent School District's elementary Spanish immersion program because it gives their children what other elementary schools in Jackson County don't: bilingualism.

Their counterparts, native Spanish speakers, benefit from being able to climb academically in their native language while learning English.

For the last seven years, 90 percent of instruction in the program at Phoenix Elementary was delivered in Spanish, but that changed this year after school officials determined that some native Spanish-speaking pupils weren't learning enough English to succeed at the secondary level.

This year, kindergartners through first-graders will hear 70 percent of their lessons in Spanish, and 30 percent in English. Second-graders will study 60 percent Spanish and 40 percent English, and third through fifth grades will receive half of their instruction in Spanish.

About 36 percent of the student body is enrolled in the immersion program.

Beefing up English instruction is expected to help native Spanish speakers to transition with more ease to middle school, where they can expect significantly less language assistance than at the elementary level.

"Some Latino parents were worried their children aren't listening to English at home and wanted to make sure when they get to middle school and high school they're able to do their work in English," said Laura Millette, Phoenix Elementary liaison to Spanish-speaking parents.

At the elementary level, students with limited English proficiency have performed well on state tests, with 76 percent meeting benchmarks in reading last year at Phoenix Elementary.

"But when they get to the high school level, they have a 30 percent dropout rate, and that's not OK," said Phoenix Elementary Principal Zuna Johnson. "We're going for the long-term. Every kid needs to graduate from high school."

The change to more English in the program disappointed some parents of native English speakers who felt it would slow the rate of their children's Spanish acquisition, Johnson said.

But, while exposing native English speakers to Spanish is one goal of the program, the first priority is ensuring students with limited English learn enough of the language to flourish in the United States, she said.

At the primary level, the change increases English instruction by about 30 minutes per day in kindergarten and an hour a day in first grade.

Some students in primary grades said they hadn't even noticed the increase in English instruction, while some others said they are glad about the change.

"I like it more this way because I learn more English," said Jennifer, whose first language is Spanish.

Claudia Cureno, mother of a Phoenix Elementary fourth-grader, said she supports the increase in English instruction.

"I'm thinking of the children's future and more opportunities for their future," Cureno said through a translator. "More English is better because it's the base language for this country."

Rosa Chavez, mother of a fifth-grader, said it's important to expose Spanish-speaking children to as much English as possible while they're still young.

"The children have clean, white brains," she said through a translator. "They're like a sponge."

Talent Elementary's immersion program has been delivering half English and half Spanish instruction at all grade levels for some time.

"We don't see a correlation in terms of either model having a negative effect on elementary test scores," said Talent Elementary Principal Aaron Santi.

The difference lies in the rate of language acquisition, which shows up later in secondary grades.

Talent's program is in higher demand than Phoenix's, with two applications for every available slot.

Ramez Akil, father of a kindergartner and second-grader in the Talent immersion program, said the 50-50 model works well.

Both of his children are native English speakers. In the program, they practice Spanish on a daily basis, and he can see them acquiring more and more vocabulary.

"In any way you look at it, a second language is necessary," said Akil, who is Lebanese. "I came from a background where a second language was obligatory. I speak four languages, and I know being multilingual will help them have better qualifications, get better jobs and to get along in other countries."

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or

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