January 23, 2019

District’s Dual-Language Program Marks Success, Plans Expansion

IMMERSION ACTIVITY: Kindergarten Spanish partner teacher Abril Retana works with her students in the Dual Language Immersion (DLI) program at Community Park Elementary School. DLI, currently for kindergarten through fourth grade, will be expanded to fifth graders next year. (Photo by Elizabeth Collier, Princeton Public Schools)

By Donald Gilpin

The Spanish-English Dual-Language Immersion (DLI) program at Princeton Public Schools (PPS) is ready to expand to include kindergarten through fifth grade next year at Community Park Elementary School (CPS).

Launched in 2015, the DLI program, in which students spend half of their day learning in Spanish and the other half in English, currently spans kindergarten through fourth grade and is now open to all PPS students entering kindergarten or first grade.

Last year was the first year that families from all Princeton elementary schools were eligible to apply for the kindergarten DLI classes at CPS. Students from Johnson Park, Littlebrook, or Riverside Elementary schools who apply and are accepted for DLI will be offered transportation to CPS if they do not live within walking distance. 

Currently there are 207 immersion students and 166 students in English-only traditional classes at CPS. Every immersion student has two main teachers, one for English instruction and one for Spanish. “The 50-50 model we use is highly successful at teaching content and at the same time developing impressive levels of language proficiency,” said CPS Principal Dineen Gruchacz.

DLI teacher Damaris Rodriguez discussed the immersion experience. “Students are immersed in the language — listening, reading, speaking, and writing Spanish every day for 2.5 hours,” she said.

Rodriguez went on to emphasize the work and planning that have made this program a success. “The-English-Spanish partner teacher connection is strong,” she said. “We plan activities together and we make sure to connect every single day to talk about our students’ academic, social, and behavior progress. All the teachers in our program are highly experienced classroom teachers, and all the Spanish teachers are native speakers. Communication, planning, continued professional development, and parent support are key ingredients in making our program successful.”

Discussing some of the larger benefits of the DLI, Rodriguez continued, “We are becoming a global society in which Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world, with more than 410 million speaking it as their native tongue. Being bilingual increases your competitiveness in the job market, opens up your mind to different cultural perspectives, and it has many positive effects on the brain.”

“Our students feel proud and know that they have to work hard to be able to succeed in this program,” she concluded.

PPS World Languages, ESL, and DLI Supervisor Priscilla Russel added, “Students do not need to have any knowledge of Spanish or English before starting the program in kindergarten or first grade. For instance, the district has accepted native Japanese, French, Korean, and Hebrew speakers into the program, with good results.”

Commenting on the success of the program in developing the students’ communication skills and confidence, Russel continued, “We are pleased with the progress our children have made in building proficiency in both Spanish and English. In our program students study Spanish language arts, math, and science in the Spanish half of the day, and English language arts and social studies during the English part of the day.”

She continued, “In classes it is impressive to watch and listen to third graders complete their science tasks, or first graders explain solutions to their math problems, or fourth graders independently play a card game, all the while speaking Spanish.”

Mitch Henderson, father of a kindergartener in the program this year, described his son’s experience and his own enthusiasm for the program. “We are very grateful for our son to have this experience at CP,” Henderson said. “From Dineen, Priscilla, and to the amazing teachers, everyone at CP is ‘all in’ with the DLI process and this is the key in my opinion. The way they clearly communicate with the parents before the program begins is impressive, and then allows us as parents to be engaged and supportive throughout.”

He added, “It seems clear to us that his love for going to school is connected with the immersion program. It has also taught him understanding, respect, and appreciation for other languages and cultures, which we really appreciate too. We are thrilled with the program.”

Lindsay Casto, who has children in second and fourth grades in the DLI program, described how rapidly her children are learning. “We are constantly blown away with their accents and their natural way of communicating in situations that allow them to engage and exercise their new language,” she said. 

She continued, praising the commitment of the teachers, “The DLI program is rooted in the drive of the teachers. To have taken over a program that was new to Princeton and shape it around the strengths and spirit of our kids has been by far the strength of the program. Their commitment, personally, to our kids has been nothing short of amazing.”

Casto went on to describe how her children hold conversations in Spanish about food, books, math, science, homework, and Capture the Flag strategy. “Our children have not only learned words and a language, but have begun to understand the power of words and the way they can communicate meaning, feelings, and a deeper understanding of cultures,” she said.

Parents interested in learning more about DLI are invited to attend an information session at Community Park School on Wednesday, February 13 at 6:30 p.m. or Wednesday, February 27 at 8:45 a.m. Attendance at one of these sessions is mandatory for families who have a student who will be entering kindergarten or first grade in September 2019 and who are interested in applying for the immersion program.