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Bilingual program unites kids

At home, Magali Enriquez speaks Spanish and Hillary McKay Fair speaks English. Both are in Miss Mecham's fourth-grade dual-language class at Midvale Elementary in Salt Lake City.

Thursday morning, they helped each other with their speaking parts for the school's fifth annual cultural show with the theme, "Peace and Liberty in This World." In the program, the more than 200 dual-language students sing, dance and speak about their different native countries.

Hillary introduced in Spanish a Peruvian dance and Magali translated in English.

Like Magali and Hillary, the students in Midvale's six dual-language classes learn from each other, not just their teacher. The goal is for all students to become bilingual and biliterate, which means they learn to read, write, speak and listen in both languages with natural accents.

Magali and about 60 percent of the students at Midvale Elementary come from Spanish-speaking homes, according to Midvale Elementary's principal Margo Richards. Those not in the dual language classes are ESL students in the regular classes.

Some students have one parent who speaks Spanish and one who speaks English and some come from only English-speaking families. Many in the classes are already fluent in both languages and translate for their parents.

They are able to pick up the language more quickly because they learn among native speakers, according to Krista Mecham, the program's fourth grade teacher.

"The things that they're doing, most high school Spanish students can't do," she said.

When Mecham asked her students why they are learning to be fluent in two languages, most almost fell out of their chairs waving their hands.

They suggested: You can find better jobs, you can make more friends, you can help more people, and you can know when people are talking about you.

Though beneficial, teaching and learning two languages at the same time is plain hard work.

"It's an overwhelming task," said Barbara Lowe, the program's third-grade teacher. "We are teaching double. Our Spanish kids' heads are spinning while I teach in English and when I teach in Spanish the English kids' heads are spinning."

But, she said, the students still do well because they rise to the higher expectations.

Nancy Giraldo, alternative language specialist for the Utah State Office of Education, said there is a lot of myth that such a program might delay a student's progress. Student scores prove the opposite.

Test scores at Midvale Elementary show that overall students in their program have reading and math scores far above the school's average with the rest slightly above average, according to Lowe.

"These children can think 3D," she said. "They make great connections."

The teachers and administrators of schools with dual-language programs in Utah say parental involvement is essential. Midvale Elementary requires that parents agree to have their children enrolled in the program and to help with homework.

Shad DeMille, fifth-grade teacher at Midvale Elementary, said learning two languages improves the children's home life, because they are able to communicate better with their parents and grandparents — not just verbally but in writing — and parents can help more easily with homework.

Some parents worry about how their kids will keep it up after elementary school. This year's group will be the first with graduates that have been in the program since kindergarten. They are far above the skill level of Spanish classes offered at Midvale Middle school.

"I don't want them to just stop speaking Spanish," said Denise Christopherson, who has three students in the program now and one finishing this year.

Two other schools in Utah have dual-language programs, Giraldo said. Timpanogos Elementary has a Spanish and English program and a school in San Juan School District teaches Navajo and English. Other schools are trying it out as a pilot program.

Along with a history and culture lesson about each country, there was a merengue dance and Spanish dance and even a little Michael Jackson hip-hop number performed by the sixth graders.

The program ended with all the children singing, "We all look different and have different cultures, yet we all feel the same about freedom. We can make this world peaceful by working together and sharing our unique customs."