Priscilla Dunlap already knew words such as dog and cat when she got to kindergarten, but now manzana, agua and pez are also part of her vocabulary.
Dunlap is one of 26 students attending Mills Elementary School’s dual-language kindergarten, a new class this year.
For half the students in the class, the primary language is Spanish; the other half speaks English. Lessons are taught in Spanish in the morning and in English during the afternoon.
The dual-language kindergarten is part of the Klamath Falls City Schools Title VII bilingual program. The district received a $400,000 federal grant to start a program and continue it for three years. The program’s first year will focus on students at the kindergarten level and will build each year until students from kindergarten to second grade are learning in a dual-language environment.
“Each child in this class is learning a new language,” said Sandra Nielsen, the dual-language kindergarten teacher. “Hopefully, after three years the children will be proficient in two languages. The students are more than ready for this, and they will benefit a great deal from it.”
“Teaching this class is almost like acting,” she said. “We sing lots of songs, I use lots of pictures and gestures to try and get the words across.”
The program has been so popular that 10 students had to be turned away from the class, said Principal Bill Leary, and there is a waiting list for next year.
“The two-way language program shows the most promise so far in accomplishing all the educational objectives of the school,” said Gray Hargett of Portland, who is evaluating the program for the school district.
The program at Mills is one of seven immersion programs throughout the state, but most of the other programs focus on students in second and third grades.
“With both groups of students in the classroom, students get basic kindergarten skills in the language they understand plus both groups receive early immersion in a foreign language so they can become bilingual,” he said.
Homework is an important part of the class. But the students are not the only ones to whom Nielsen assigns homework. Parents receive letters and other materials from Nielsen in Spanish and are asked to spend time practicing the language.
Alexandra Tapia said she’s seen a change in her daughter, Evita, since she began the dual-language class at Mills. Evita primarily spoke Spanish when she started school, but now her English is improving, as well as her Spanish.
“I think it is great that students are learning both languages,” she said. “(Evita) is using both languages now and is pulling words from each language. If she starts a sentence in Spanish, she will often end it in English.”
The hardest part for Kristen Dunlap, Priscilla’s mom, is trying to figure out what some of the Spanish words mean.
“Sometimes it’s hard for Priscilla to understand that she is teaching us, too,” she said. “She will often ask us what Spanish words mean and we have to tell her we don’t know.”
Priscilla Dunlap would normally attend Pelican Elementary School, but her parents decided to enroll her in the Mills program because she has shown an interest in learning Spanish.
“We put her in this program because we thought it would be a good time and opportunity for her to learn Spanish,” Kristen Dunlap said. “It is amazing what she has already learned. She comes home and sings Spanish songs to me and then tells me what the songs mean in English.
“To me it just reaffirms how quickly children learn Spanish at a young age.”