Parents now have more choice if they want their child to learn a second language.

The Bakersfield City School District is expanding its dual immersion program, offering two kindergarten classes at Harris Elementary School in addition to the existing program at Voorhies Elementary. The program teaches students both English and Spanish.

“We’ve found that a lot of our parents do want their children to be bilingual because those are the students who are being picked up first for jobs,” said program director Beatrice Castilleja Gray. “We want to prepare them for the global market.”

The K-8 program teaches students to read, write and speak both languages. It starts with 90 percent instruction in Spanish and 10 percent in English. However, by fifth grade, it’s a 50/50 split.

“As kids mature, when language and content becomes more complex, kids have that strong foundation in the Spanish language to build from,” said Mark Luque, assistant superintendent of educational services for BCSD.

Gray said Harris Elementary will start off with around 40 students in the program this upcoming year. In 2019, the program will be available to first-graders. Over the next six years, the program should be available to all grades at Harris.

After leaving elementary school, the students complete their learning at their junior high school.

Prior to this year’s expansion, the dual immersion program existed for 20 years at Voorhies Elementary. The program has grown each year and is expected to serve around 300 students at Voorhies this year.

With the passage of Proposition 58 in 2016, Gray said BCSD has more freedom to expand the program. The proposition repealed Proposition 227, which required that English learners be placed in classrooms that only gave instruction in English.

Gray said the dual immersion program was considered an alternative program that required a signed waiver by parents in order for students to participate. With Prop. 58, however, those limitations are gone and no waiver is required.

“We have an opportunity with the passage of Prop 58 to bring multiliteracy to our students and our families,” she said. “Parents really just have more choice now.”

Gray said that with parents having easier access to the program, the district felt it was the right time to expand.

Luque said Harris Elementary was chosen for the expansion due to its more central location in town, as Voorhies is east of Bakersfield proper.

“This allows families to access a campus that is further west in our community,” he said. “Voorhies is quite a distance for most families, which isn’t very convenient. This balances the district. We now have two school sites, one on either side of town.”

Gray said interest in the dual immersion program has been strong over the past few years. However, she said it’s still sometimes challenging to convince parents to enroll their children in the program.

“The challenge is getting the word out to Spanish-speaking families,” she said. “Their fear is that if they’re putting their children in a 90/10 model their children will not learn English, and that will not occur. They will learn more English each year they’re in the program.”

Gray said she grew up in a Spanish-speaking home. However, she said her parents wanted her to be an English speaker, so she heard Spanish at home but only spoke English until she went to college.

“In college, I found English speakers who were bilingual,” she said. “I became really interested in that and learned about how two languages can be learned simultaneously.”

Gray said she has been a bilingual teacher for 25 years and has loved the experience.

“English learners do not have to give up their primary language and for English speakers, they’re gaining another language. It’s beautiful,” she said.

If all goes well with this year’s expansion, Gray said she would like to see the program expanded to other schools in the future.

Joseph Luiz can be reached at 395-7368 or by email at jluiz@bakersfield.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @JLuiz_TBC. 

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