Dual language immersion program faces challenges

2011-08-09T08:00:00Z 2011-11-28T12:22:31Z Dual language immersion program faces challengesMATTHEW DeFOUR | mdefour@madison.com | 608-252-6144 madison.com

This story appeared first in the Sunday edition of the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper.

As the Madison School District's dual language immersion program enters its eighth year, the increasingly popular option for native Spanish and English speakers is experiencing growing pains.

The district is expanding the program to all of its high school attendance areas, and is looking into possibly adding French and Chinese dual language programs, which would also pair native and non-native English speakers.

National research has shown dual language programs improve student learning better than programs that teach English to non-native speakers or two languages to non-English speakers.

But some School Board members have concerns about the expansion, especially after a recent report highlighted some of the program's shortcomings.

"I'd rather fix the red flags and make sure we've got it right before we expand," said School Board member Lucy Mathiak. "I don't see how you expand a program and attend to the things that need to be dealt with at the same time."

Meanwhile, Nuestro Mundo, a charter school where the program began in 2004, is seeking a new location because it currently shares space in cramped quarters with Allis Elementary.

Last year, the program expanded to middle school as the first class of Nuestro Mundo students attended Sennett Middle School.

The district recently started programs at Leopold, Sandburg and Midvale elementaries, and this year is expanding to Glendale and Chavez elementaries.

In 2013, the first class of Nuestro Mundo students will enter La Follette High School and by 2020 students who started in kindergarten at the other elementary schools will have advanced to Lincoln Elementary, Sherman, Toki and Cherokee middle schools and East, West and Memorial high schools.

In Madison's program, both native English and Spanish speakers receive 90 percent of their kindergarten instruction in Spanish, with the mix steadily increasing to 50-50 by fourth grade.

There were 547 students enrolled last year, with about half of them among the district's 4,100 English language learners, assistant program director Amy Christianson said.

Last year Verona started the state's first Chinese dual language program. 

With 164 students who speak Chinese as their first language, Madison is looking into doing the same, Christianson said.

Netting high marks

A study completed last spring by the Washington-based Center for Applied Linguistics was generally high on Madison's program, though it criticized the district for not providing enough administrative direction to classroom teachers.

The report also raised concerns that native Spanish speakers were still struggling with their primary and secondary languages more than their native English-speaking counterparts, and that the program hasn't done more to close the achievement gaps between Hispanic and non-Hispanic students and English-language learners and English-proficient students.

The School Board is beginning discussions with district administration about what a high school program would look like. 

Board member Ed Hughes said he hasn't seen justification yet for creating a separate "school within a school" but could see each high school offering advanced classes for students who had completed a K-8 program.

The report noted that state test scores among Nuestro Mundo students have significantly improved, especially compared with other district students. 

Julie Sugarman, lead author of the report, said the district shouldn't be discouraged by the persistent achievement gap because it often takes until the end of eighth grade for native Spanish speakers to show significant strides in English academic work.

"I'm very optimistic that once it becomes a mature program, it could be one of the great programs in the country," Sugarman said.

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