In five years 30 to 40 percent of Jackson Hole High School students could be biliterate.
“That not only changes the language conversation but, I would say, the course offerings, culture and equity conversations in our building,” Principal Scott Crisp said. “There’s a lot of things beyond just learning the language that will start to be addressed in a positive way, which I believe will really start to attack our achievement gap as a district.”
As dual immersion students enter high school in larger numbers — the program doubled with the current sixth-grade class — and are joined by other native Spanish speakers, Teton County School District No. 1 administrators are figuring out the best ways to fit their needs.
One change will be noticeable at graduation this year, when some students will earn a seal of biliteracy on their diplomas, indicating a specific proficiency level in two or more languages. Thirty-five states and Washington, D.C., have adopted a statewide seal. Wyoming is not one of them.
“We created our own seal of biliteracy for Teton County that is a little unique in terms of its intent,” said Scott Eastman, the dual immersion program coordinator and principal of Munger Mountain Elementary School. “A lot of states’ seals are really intended for students who are learning a second-world language as opposed to students who are language learners who are acquiring English.”
Pathway awards are also newly available for fifth- and eighth-grade students who are working toward biliteracy — the ability to read, write and speak in two languages.
“It has to be dynamic,” Eastman said. “Dual immersion is a very challenging model to implement. It takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of reflection.”
Students want to use their language skills
The dual program looks different as students age. It’s self-contained at Munger Mountain Elementary School, the first dual school in the state, where students spend half the day speaking (ideally) only English and half the day only Spanish.
At Jackson Hole Middle School and Jackson Hole High School, students spend two of the seven periods in a student's schedule in Spanish during language and history classes and aren’t required to stick with the program. Other students can jump into high school offerings if they’re proficient.
“We want dual to be part of what we do,” Crisp said. “It’s not an isolating program. … From a secondary lens you start focusing on the endpoint, and what that does is it widens your student population of people who can access the dual type programming versus just a subset of students.”
The first class of dual immersion program students who began in first grade are now sophomores. They can earn high school and college credit simultaneously for the dual classes.
Broader programmatic changes in the works include changing high school course offerings.
“By the time a kid becomes a junior and a senior they want to apply their language,” Crisp said. “So we’re trying to come up with great opportunities for them to apply the language they’ve learned versus just another course.”
That could take several forms and would depend on what’s called “forecasting” at the high school, a process of predicting demand for next year’s classes. Options on the table include more electives in Spanish, AP Spanish Literature and perhaps an interpreter program that covers technical, medical and legal components.
“We are exploring that,” Crisp said. “I can’t make any guarantees on that, but we’re trying to make that happen. That’s a very popular request right now.”
Once students graduate, another opportunity for them to use their language is to become a biliterate educator. Beginning this year, Eastman plans to attend the college and career fair in April and talk to students about the career path here and elsewhere.
“We haven’t done that yet because our kids are only sophomores, but we definitely plan on creating a pathway for teaching for our graduates and encouraging them to consider coming back to Teton County as a teacher,” Eastman said. “It’s a tremendous opportunity for our kids.”
Although finding qualified biliterate — not just bilingual — teachers in the past has been a challenge, it’s not a big issue this year due to fewer open positions and more qualified applicants. Eastman won’t go to Spain or any other recruiting fairs like last year.
Principals said that while existing staff benefits from collaborating, finding time to do so is a struggle. But at Jackson Hole Middle School teachers try to meet every week to complement each other without content being redundant.
“It’s nice to see that when it works, it works well,” Principal Matt Hoelscher said.
Collaboration is extending outside the classroom to reach school districts beyond Teton County. Eastman said he’s been working with Campbell, Albany and Natrona county schools as they expand their programs. In Jackson the principals are optimistic the dual program is already encouraging positive social change. They’ve noticed students associating more with others who don’t necessarily look like them.
“I would say that’s happening more and more,” Crisp said. “That’s healthy. Whatever you call the program, that type of dynamic is good for schools.”
Despite seeing room for improvement — take a look at who sits by who in the lunch room — Hoelscher agreed. He sees more cultural exchange at the middle school and with his freshman son in the dual immersion program.
“He has lots of Latino friends that he actually hangs out with outside of school,” Hoelscher said. “That could also be [because of] soccer, but I think it’s this idea of cultural integration, and teachers do an excellent job, whether they are dual teachers or not, of grouping kids together that they normally wouldn’t be with. I think if you’re doing that year after year and you have multiple experiences of that in class, athletically, socially, it’s going to happen more and more naturally.”