Eagle County’s Dual Language program teaches more than a second language
Photography by Brent Bingham
It was 1963, and immigration from Cuba was causing a dramatic demographic shift in Miami, Florida. As a result, Coral Way Elementary School instituted conversational Spanish instruction adding a dual language program to its curriculum for both English and Spanish speakers.
It was a national first.
Five years later, the Bilingual Education Act 1968 was passed, becoming the first federal legislation aimed at supporting bilingual students and English language learners (ELL).
And in 2001 the Eagle County school district was approached by some parents to introduce Dual Language education.
“At the time, many parents thought that teachers were spending too much time working trying to teach non-Englishspeaking kids. And it popped into my head that everybody needs to be bilingual. Not everybody has to speak just English,” says Bambi Forbes who, along with Joette Gilbert, first suggested the program to the Eagle County school district.
“I called the district and talked with the head of the English as a Second Language (ESL) program who said, ’I’ve been waiting for someone like you to call. I tried to start this thing called Dual Language a couple of years ago and everybody turned it down. And what we need is a parent to explain to other parents what this is.’ So, I began researching to find out exactly how it worked.”
Forbes and Gilbert were on a mission. They visited schools in Boulder and began talking with parents to explain the program. Many were very excited about it. Others, not so much. However, from the start, the program has brought kids and parents together in unexpected ways.
To begin, Eagle County’s Dual Language 50:50 programs provide many benefits for all students. In addition to increased cognitive stimulation and increased metalinguistic awareness — which fosters a student’s ability to develop additional languages — educators find that there are fewer disciplinary referrals, higher self-esteem and a high value of diversity within the school system. In these programs, all students are language learners and all teachers are language development teachers in one language or the other. This means that 50 percent of the students’ instructional schooling throughout the year is in one language and 50 percent in the other. In every content area, including math. And, in the end, students exhibit bilingual leadership in their community and are prepared for global citizenship. “We want kids to be able to compete world-wide and to be able to have that second language,” says Jessica Martinez, Director of the ELL Programs for Eagle County Schools.
“We want to improve relationships between our two cultural entities. And this seems like the best way to do it.
“Everything that comes out of a Dual Language program just fits. There’s the language, of course, but the students have to have the ability to work with people who are different. It makes students take risks and know that they don’t always know the answers. They know that sometimes you’re a learner and sometimes you’re a leader. To work in a duallanguage situation takes a lot of dedication.”
And Josh Braun, who graduated from the University of Colorado (CU) in May, has been dedicated to learning a second language since he was in kindergarten at Edwards Elementary. Since then, foreign languages have become a large part of his life. “It all started with my being exposed to Spanish at such a young age,” shares Braun. “In fact I took a semester abroad in my junior year and interned for the government of Argentina, working on sustainable reports for them. And thanks to the Dual Language program, I was able to do high-level government work all in Spanish.
“I also took French and Russian at CU and was able to do well. I believe my brain is more susceptible to learning more foreign languages because I began learning a second language at such a young age.”
Levi Gilbert, who works in film and television production and was an early Dual Language student, also uses his language skills in his line of work. “We travel around the world and I go to a lot of Spanish-speaking countries,” says Gilbert. “My Dual Language studies have helped me immensely with communicating with locals and getting through customs. My class was one of the first to be exposed to the program. At the beginning it was difficult and the kids were dubious. Once I graduated, however, I realized how useful it is to know a second language and I believe my classmates are right there with me on realizing how great it is.”
For Carolina Rodriguez, the opportunity for her 10-year-old twin girls, Aby and Alexa, to attend Homestake Peak, a Dual Language school was a blessing. “The girls love it. They speak English and Spanish at home. I think it’s very important for them to know the two languages. And I think they work hard and are smarter for it.”
Nick, Max and Rennick Williams all attended Edwards Elementary. “We were amazingly attracted to the innovative programming that the school district was bringing to the school,” relates their mother, Kristen Kenny Williams. “For Dave, my husband, and me it was more than just our children being able to learn a second language at such a young age. It was more about the innovative opportunity to integrate a significant second-language population in our community. And that was what was most rewarding to us. Our boys have created and maintained life-long friendships and understanding of a diverse and inclusive community. They were able to learn that at a young age. And, as parents, that was more important to us than their learning a second language.“
Perhaps the best thing to come out of the Dual Language program is the camaraderie that all students enjoy, no matter what their first language might be. And Martinez sums it up beautifully:
“If you go to a playground and watch how the kids that don’t attend a Dual Language school interact, you will see that they play in groups that don’t always mix. At a Dual Language school, you see everybody playing together. Those are the types of things that you see: kids valuing each other’s diversity and everybody playing with everybody. That’s just a given. I don’t know if the kids realize it. But the parents and the teachers certainly do.”
“At the time, many parents thought that teachers were spending too much time working trying to teach non-English-speaking kids. And it popped into my head that everybody needs to be bilingual. Not everybody has to speak just English.”