West Michigan schools offer dual language program

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) — When Forest Hills Public Schools students begin kindergarten, they will have a basic understanding of the English language. However, when they graduate from high school 13 years later, many of them will speak fluent Spanish or Mandarin Chinese.

Forest Hills is one of a few West Michigan districts that offer a dual language immersion program from kindergarten through high school. The district has the longest established Mandarin program with students in kindergarten through sixth grade, The Grand Rapids Press (http://bit.ly/1zpD9l7 ) reported.

"We operate from a global perspective and we know that language and cultures are very much linked," said Stephanie Irizarry, the program's language coach who works side by side with teachers. "By teaching these languages, students have the opportunity to engage in dialogue and interact with other cultures."

Students may enroll if they have siblings who have gone through the program, or be selected through a districtwide lottery. Once accepted, students attend specific schools within the district that offer language immersion. For instance, Spanish immersion students attend Ada Vista Elementary where their classes are taught almost entirely in Spanish. Once students reach the fifth grade, they attend Northern Trails 5/6 school, Northern Hills Middle School and Northern Hills High School where language classes are mixed with English-speaking classes, according to Irizarry.

The Mandarin Chinese immersion differs slightly from its Spanish counterpart as it is a 50/50 immersion. For students who choose Mandarin Chinese, they attend Meadow Brook Elementary, where half of their classes are taught in Mandarin and the other half in English. When these students reach Northern Trails 5/6 school, they will have a Mandarin-speaking block schedule. "Pioneer" classes will begin at Northern Hills Middle School and Northern High School, in fall of 2015 and 2017, respectively.

"We jump right in feet-first with content instruction," Irizarry said.

There are three goals of the district's immersion program: secondary language proficiency, grade content achievement, which meet the state standards and create a heightened awareness, and sensitivity to other cultures.

"So many of our students have a rich world lens," said Northern Trails Principal Susan Gutierrez, who oversees the 5/6 Spanish immersion. "Research shows that students who are able to be cross-cultured flourish in being a good neighbor in their community and participate in the global economy."

Gutierrez has already seen the immersion benefits in her son, who traveled to Tanzania when he was in fifth grade last school year. The then 10-year-old learned Swahili and took time to be part of the country's culture.

"It's real when they talk about a topic and have a different perspective," Gutierrez said. "If he can understand people around him and have a different viewpoint and understanding of the different way of life around the world, he's going to be a very powerful force in the work force."


Information from: The Grand Rapids Press, http://www.mlive.com/grand-rapids

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