February 24, 2016

Dual Language Immersion Program Prepares for Year Two Expansion


BI-LINGUAL MORNING MEETING: In Damaris Rodriguez’s first grade class at Community Park School the dual language immersion program is in full swing, with half the classes conducted in English and half in Spanish and benefits for both native and non-native speakers.

For about 80 kindergarteners and first graders the school year so far at Community Park has provided a different sort of experience from that of past years or that of many of their peers. Those students and their four teachers have been plunged into a dual language immersion program (DLI), learning half the day in Spanish and half the day in English. 

The dual immersion classes include children who speak English and those who speak Spanish as their primary language at home. All children in the program were voluntarily enrolled by their parents a year ago.

The program, similar to other dual immersion programs that are becoming increasingly popular throughout the country, has demonstrated advantages for both native and non-native speakers.

“Our entire school culture is being enriched by this new way of thinking about learning,” stated Community Park principal Dineen Gruchacz. “DLI has made us think more globally — it is spawning ideas and events to support learning for all of our students, such as our international fashion show.”

DLI, a two-year pilot program to be evaluated after its second year, was limited to kindergarten and first grade this year and will expand to accommodate the rising second graders next year.

Priscilla Russel, supervisor of world languages and ESL for Princeton Public Schools, proposed the immersion program after studying research on the cognitive benefits of bilingualism. “We see a higher level of proficiency in the second language; and there is also evidence of enhanced cognitive skills and improved academic performance.”

First grade English language arts teacher Mary Gutierrez, describing her work in the program as “an exciting and dynamic experience,” stated, “One of my favorite aspects of the program is working with a partner teacher and sharing students. We collaborate daily to talk about our students and program and we use these reflections to make our teaching and program better.”

Ms. Gutierrez’s partner teacher, Damaris Rodriguez, who teaches the Spanish portion of the first grade curriculum, including math, social studies, science, and Spanish language arts, agreed on the value of the program so far. “This has been a big learning experience,” she said. “It’s helped me look at things that I took for granted more closely.” Ms. Rodriguez has found evidence of the cognitive benefits of the bilingual approach, noting significant improvements in mid-year assessments.

Ms. Gutierrez recounted a revealing experience during pack-up time in the English classroom. “One student will start to sing a song that they’ve learned in the Spanish classroom and soon all of the students begin to sing along as they pack up. It is effortless and an authentic demonstration and celebration of their learning.”

For Maria Jose Sordo, mother of first grader Ana Rossi, the benefits of the program spread beyond the classroom. “It’s helping Ana feel more confident because she can help others,” said Ms. Sordo, whose primary language at home is Spanish. She is also impressed with how much Ana’s classmates have learned. When they visit Ana’s home, “they understand everything,” Ms. Sordo said. “It is like play date plus.”