Heather Murtagh/Daily Journal
Eleven-year-old Piper, a fifth grade student at McKinley Elementary School in Burlingame, reads a story to her classmates on one of the final days of school. She’s part of the 21-member class to be the first to complete the dual immersion program started at the school in 2007.
Eleven-year-old Piper took a seat in a chair a bit taller than she in front of classmates Thursday morning and cracked open a book she had penned, “Pingo and Jingo and Anna la Astronauta.”
She dedicated the original story to Silvia, her longtime nanny who helped Piper as she learned Spanish through the dual immersion program at McKinley Elementary School in Burlingame. Piper is one of 21 fifth graders who was part of the original dual immersion class in 2007. Last week, this class completed the six-year program. Now heading to Burlingame Intermediate School, the kids will have the chance to continue their Spanish studies.
At first, learning Spanish was difficult, Piper recalled.
“Nobody understood anything,” she said, adding that everyone hated the homework at the time and didn’t understand how it would help.
McKinley’s program starts with kindergartners learning 90 percent of the time in Spanish and 10 percent of the time in English.
As the children progress, the percentage of time spent in Spanish decreases while time spent speaking English increases until, in fifth grade, it’s equal. Now, Piper sees a difference. Spanish is much easier. Piper explained she’s almost as fluent in Spanish as she is in English.
Her mother, Diane Russell, said that watching her daughter learn two languages has been an amazing gift. Piper even helps translate for her parents when on trips or when talking to non-English-speaking parents.
Principal Paula Valerio explained that the program is still young and the curriculum is often being updated. Parents have rallied around the program, which is an option for local parents that continues to draw interest. At the start, immersion was offered with one kindergarten class taught by Elaine Tarango.
Tarango, who was a bit sentimental thinking back at the first class, said she was proud of the students who stuck with the program. It was new. They didn’t have other native Spanish speakers to chat with or even older children who could help with their studies, she said. Despite that challenge, students worked hard academically to be successful, she said.
Another class was added each year until the program was offered for students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Next year, with growing interest, there will be two classes of kindergartners. It will also be the first time that the incoming class will have the desired 50/50 split of native speaking or bilingual Spanish and English speakers.
It’s not just about learning another language, said Valerio. Cultural enrichment is a big part of the program focus, said Valerio.
In the last year, the program’s language arts curriculum was overhauled. In the coming year, Valerio expects to do the same for math.
Kindergarten classes at McKinley look similar regardless of the main language spoken. In Lizette Cueva’s kindergarten class, which is taught mostly in Spanish, students were eager to showcase their journals which featured a variety of writing assignments in Spanish. When asked questions, students would listen to Cueva speak in Spanish then, for the benefit of a reporter who only speaks English, would respond in English to explain the task at hand.
Parent Kim Koisvisto moved across country with her two daughters for the program at McKinley — a move she said was the right one for her family.
Getting the program off the ground took lots of time and community input.
In 2006, interest in the program was originally studied for both Mandarin and Spanish. The district allowed parents of current kindergartners and preschoolers to sign up with their preference of either language. At the time, a total of 133 students who signed up were eligible — 56 in Mandarin, 72 Spanish and two for either.
Although there was enough interest to start a program in both languages, the district didn’t have the funds or space to do so. Only McKinley Elementary had space to start a program. It was later decided to go forward with a Spanish program at McKinley with $100,000 set aside to help fund the startup.
In the spring of 2007, it looked as if the program would be stalled. Hopes to start the program were renewed in June 2007 when the district found a teacher willing to take on the new position.
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