Immersed in language
Arizona Republic
Dec. 17, 2005

English speakers at Desert Willow learning in Spanish

Carol Sowers


On a recent morning, Madison Christman, a second-grader at Cave Creek's Desert Willow Elementary School, was putting the finishing touches on her essay about her family Christmas tree.

"Huele como pino y canela," the 7-year-old wrote in flawless Spanish. Her sentence described her tree that smells of pine and cinnamon.

Madison is one of 100 second- and third-graders at Desert Willow who read, write, speak and study in Spanish for at least half their school day. Another 50 first-graders also study Spanish half day.

Desert Willow is the only public school in the state that plunges young English-speaking students so deeply into a second language, said Nancy Rhodes, director of elementary education programs for the Center for Applied Linguistics, a non-profit group in Washington, D.C., that researches and tracks foreign-language instruction nationwide.

Fifteen other Arizona schools are often compared to Desert Willow's program. But Rhodes said those schools combine English- and Spanish-speaking students into the same classes, where both languages are taught simultaneously.

"That's more of an English-as-a-second-language approach," she said.

By contrast, she said, so-called immersion programs like the one at Desert Willow are "the best way America has found to teach a second language."

Younger children, she said, learn quickly, developing "a native-like fluency and pronunciation," which sometimes evades older students.

Still, such innovative programs have been controversial.

Desert Willow Principal Jana Miller said the immersion program there met some resistance when it started three years ago.

"Since it was a new concept, whenever they saw the word Spanish, parents thought it was for Hispanic children and didn't enroll their children," she said.

However, what began as a hard sell has taken off. Today, Miller has a waiting list of 30 families.

Lauri Grovich is enthusiastic about her 8-year-old daughter's progress.

"She speaks Spanish all of the time," said Grovich, a parent volunteer. "The kids are really sucking it up and learning."

The children speak Spanish on the playground and at home.

Their fluency was obvious in Carmen Murguia's third-grade class.

The 7- and-8-year-olds shot their hands in the air during a drill, creating sentences with words like después (after) and bastante (enough).

Sitting in the back of the room, Miller, a Spanish speaker, raised her hand.

"No tengo bastante Starbucks," she said. (I don't have enough Starbucks.)

The kids laughed.

Later, the children dug ingredients out of coolers or bags for the recipes that will appear in an English-Spanish cookbook for their parents.

If the children stumbled into English, Murguia cupped her ear and said, "No te entiendo," reminding them in Spanish that she doesn't understand them.

"This is the natural way to learn language," Murguia said in Spanish.

Second- and third-graders in the immersion program study the same social sciences and math as children in traditional classes. But when the Spanish-learning students reach third grade, they must pass Arizona's Instrument for Measuring Standards test for those subjects in English.

"The kids are acing it," Grovich said, proof that the immersion students are nimble in both languages.

Tara Evans, another volunteer mother, sat in the back of Kathy Glidden's third-grade math class in Spanish, grading papers.

She enrolled her son Skyler in the immersion program, she said, "because I like the idea of him having an open mind."

Although Skyler is only 8, Evans said she is already thinking about how Spanish would help him if he joined his father's construction business.

"He speaks Spanish better than his father," she said.

Evans' 3-year-old, son, Shane, stood at the edge of the class, soaking up the rhythmic Spanish sounds.

"He's going to be speaking very well by the time he gets in the program," she said.

Meanwhile, Sydney Lee, an 8-year-old in Tina Arnieri's second-grade class, sat on a colorful blanket with other students reading books in Spanish. Hers was about sport teams.

If anyone had asked, she could have easily translated it into English.

"All of us kids can translate stuff. And it's really great."