Dual Immersion Program Offers Elementary School Students Opportunity for Bilingualism

When Ashleigh Kujoth, first began school at Nuestro Mundo, a bilingual immersion charter elementary school on Madison’s east side, she spoke no Spanish.

Thanks to six years of Spanish-language immersion at the school, Ashleigh is now comfortable speaking and understanding Spanish, and translates letters the school sends home for her parents.

As a student at Nuestro Mundo, Ashleigh is part of an increasingly popular education trend in Madison?dual language immersion for elementary school students.

Housed in the same building as Frank Allis Elementary School, students at Nuestro Mundo learn 90 percent of their core subjects, including math, literacy, social studies and science, in Spanish during kindergarten and first grade. The percentage of the curriculum taught in English increases in subsequent years until fifth grade, where students are taught equally in both languages.

Although Ashleigh does not speak much Spanish at home, her mother, Judy Kujoth said her progress is clear. When letters and report cards written in Spanish and English are sent home, Kujoth and her husband Greg, have Ashleigh translate the Spanish sections for them.

Greg is fluent in French and English, and sees bilingualism as an opportunity that will come in handy for Ashleigh in the future.

“We thought it really would give her a leg up in the future, when she goes off to college and in the job market she’ll be ahead of many of her peers with a second language,” Kujoth said.

Still, teaching students in more than one language is not without its costs. One potential challenge has been test scores, which in 2007 were lower at Nuestro Mundo than at other Madison elementary schools, especially in math.

Parents at Nuestro Mundo are warned that bilingual students may lag behind their counterparts at English-only schools. Since the benefits of bilingual education are not instantaneous, parents are asked to commit to keeping their children in the program for the long-term. According to Pam Delfosse, a Madison School District support staff member for Nuestro Mundo, students at Nuestro Mundo usually catch up by fifth grade.

In Ashleigh’s case, Kujoth said she noticed her daughter had more difficulty learning to read in English than her older sister, who attended Frank Allis Elementary School.

“We did notice her reading skills seemed to come a little more slowly because of having the majority of content in Spanish in the early years,” Kujoth said. “When learning to read in English she’s mispronouncing English words because she wants to pronounce words in Spanish.”

However, Delfosse said standardized testing results do not take into account that in early grades, students at Nuestro Mundo have less English language instruction than their peers. On average, students at Nuestro Mundo perform at or above grade level, Delfosse said.

In Ashleigh’s case, Kujoth believes she has caught up with other students at Sennett Middle School, where she is currently a sixth-grader.

The benefits of bilingual instruction are also often bigger than test scores, Lafosse said.

“One of the benefits that’s very important to acknowledge is that not only are students achieving higher levels in academic achievement across content levels, but they’re getting bilingual academic language skills, bilteracy, which is the ability to read and write in more than one language, and inter-cultural competence,” Lafosse said.

Kujoth said bilingual instruction broadened the way Ashleigh, and other Nuestro Mundo students, learned to communicate.

“They’ve had to adapt themselves to not only the words are coming out the teacher’s mouth, especially when in the beginning they don’t understand those words,” Kujoth said. “But they’re also looking for visual cues, at body language, they’re scanning the environment, they’re watching their peers, they’re taking all these other things into account to supplement what their teacher is saying verbally.”

Thanks to Nuestro Mundo’s example, other elementary schools in the city are implementing bilingual programs. Leopold Elementary School on Madison’s west side began its Spanish immersion program in fall 2009, and Chavez Elementary School on the southwest side of the city will begin its bilingual program this fall.