When 43 students entered Jackson Hole High School as the first dual immersion class this fall, there was little pomp and circumstance.
“That class and I walked into the door without a lot of fanfare,” said dual U.S. history teacher Carson King. “It’s not a novelty to them. It’s what they know. They walked in and hit the ground running.”
The dual immersion program includes native English-speaking students and native speakers of Spanish. Teton County School District No. 1 was the first in Wyoming to create a dual program, but other districts are now following suit and looking to Jackson for inspiration.
The trailblazing group of students has moved from learning how to read in both languages at the same time in elementary school, to two classes a day in Spanish at Jackson Hole Middle School and, now, Spanish 4 and U.S. history, already part of the graduation requirements at Jackson Hole High School.
But the freshman class of dual immersion students isn’t just those who started the program as first-graders in 2009 at Jackson Elementary School. Newcomers to the United States who are learning English are often placed in the program as a natural fit. Some have been in the country for only a few months.
“The face of the dual program really looks different at the high school,” King said.
Districtwide, 669 students are enrolled in the dual language immersion program, and 737 are anticipated for the 2018 school year. Munger Mountain Elementary School, designated as a dual immersion school, will open in the fall of 2018.
While improving test scores of native Spanish-speaking students was a primary goal of the program when it began, that’s by no means the only benefit or outcome.
Scott Eastman, the soon-to-be principal of Munger Mountain Elementary School who now oversees dual immersion for kindergarten through 12th grade, said the benefits are far reaching and include cognitive skills, preparation for a 21st-century job market and other strengths that are harder to quantify.
When students graduate they are biliterate, meaning they can read and write in different languages, and bilingual, meaning they can speak two languages fluently. Jackson Hole High School Principal Scott Crisp, Eastman and others are working to develop something called a biliteracy seal that students can earn upon graduation.
Many students interviewed for this story said they hoped to get a better job with their language skills, and other native Spanish speakers appreciated the opportunity to communicate with their family members in their native language. Eastman said having native Spanish speakers in advanced Spanish classes in the high school is “raising the bar.”
“We have a level of foreign language proficiency in our freshmen that we’ve never seen before,” he said. “If you close your eyes and a student answers a question, you can’t tell who the native speaker is.”
There’s a misconception that dual students, whether they are native Spanish or native English speakers, don’t do as well as their peers in traditional classrooms. Eastman and others analyzed the data for all cohorts between 2009 and today and found that that simply isn’t true.
“There is virtually no distinction between dual and traditional students on academic achievement,” Eastman said.
There were bumps along the way. Some students said that because they learned math in Spanish they didn’t know math terms in English on standardized tests.
Native English speakers like freshman Riggs Turner said it was “hard to keep up in Spanish class because I was communicating with people who have been speaking the language for their whole entire life.”
When King is teaching in Spanish he notices that students who wouldn’t normally speak up do.
“They’re proud to offer something in the classroom,” King said. “And the other students get a perspective of what life is like for so many students in our district.”
Native Spanish speakers, like sophomore Glenda Mancia Sandoval, said they participate more because they understand more.
“I have felt incapable in other classes because I do not know enough English, but in these classes I can talk calmly without fear,” she said.
Dual immersion classes like King’s bring together students with different backgrounds.
“I’ve taught students from migrant families who can have meaningful discussions with students who’ve spent their whole life in Jackson,” King said. “That’s really impactful.”
Freshman Chloe Stines said she enjoyed a broader perspective.
“One, every day I am not focused on how our own country is functioning at any given moment,” she said.
The most important benefit of the program to Stines is that she can “now communicate with thousands of people who don’t know a word in English and in the past I couldn’t talk to them and truly understand anything they said.”
Students who have been in the dual immersion program for years described it as a family.
“In my dual classes I feel like home,” freshman Damaris Lopez-Rios said. “I’m with people who I met years ago. We have stuck together, have made trouble together and have succeeded together. They are like family.”
Administrators have known the older dual students were coming. Eastman said members of the high school staff have done a lot to make the move happen.
“We want to continue to provide rich and challenging opportunities for them to apply their language skills,” Eastman said. “It was a challenging transition for us this year in deciding which way to go, but I’m fully confident that we will have a dynamic program for all of our students throughout their high school career.”
There’s no manual or template, Eastman said. The district will be challenged again when about twice as many students make their way into middle school and high school. Six years ago the program doubled.
After taking AP Spanish, college courses in Spanish could be an avenue to explore. That’s how Utah’s dual program works, but schools there have access to many more local and regional colleges than Jackson does. Eastman said administrators might consider partnering with Central Wyoming College.
The high school is also working to determine what courses besides history could be offered in Spanish.
Hiring qualified staff to teach content courses, like science, in Spanish is an ongoing challenge.
Eastman said administrators always look for potential within the district but will also recruit nationally and internationally in the years to come.
Community partnerships and opportunities can help fill any gaps.
“We want all the work that they’ve done to be real in the world,” Crisp said.
“But we’re kind of taking it year by year right now,” he said.