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Learning in English and Spanish: CCSD pilots dual language program

A picture of a domino with three dots was displayed on a screen in Jennifer Lopez Romero’s kindergarten classroom on a recent Wednesday at Ronnow Elementary School.

“Uno, dos, tres,” her students counted aloud.

During the math lesson, Lopez Romero’s students were learning in Spanish about which numbers are “mayor que” (greater than) or “menor que” (less than) others.

In an adjoining classroom, fellow kindergarten teacher Melina Arriaza was working with students on the same lesson, but in English.

“Is seven greater than or less than eight?” she asked her students.

The Clark County School District has a new dual language pilot program this school year at three east Las Vegas campuses — Ronnow Elementary, Monaco Middle School and Desert Pines High School. In total, about 120 students are participating.

Some school district campuses had dual language programs in years past, but a district official said they were discontinued after facing challenges such as changes in leadership and a lack of professional support for teachers. Also, they weren’t consistently implemented districtwide.

But those behind the new program say they’re determined to get it right this time.

Classes for the program initially are being offered in kindergarten, sixth and ninth grades, and each school will add one grade level a year. It’s optional for families to participate.

Dual language programs are beneficial for students’ brain development, said Assistant Superintendent Ignacio Ruiz, who oversees the district’s English-language learner division.

“As students are learning in both languages, that also translates into student achievement,” he said.

Having a second language is an asset that will help students throughout school and in their future careers, said Ruiz, who has past experience as an administrator over dual language programs in Tucson, Arizona.

Participating students in the new pilot program live within the attendance zone for the three schools with the offering.

Ronnow has four kindergarten classes, and half are part of the dual language program.

The school advertised the offering during registration last school year and held informational sessions for interested families, Assistant Principal Erin Nguyen said.

Arriaza and Lopez Romero work as a team and share about 40 students. Kindergartners learn in Spanish for half the day and in English for half the day.

About three-fourths of the kindergarteners in the program are considered to have “limited English proficiency.”

For students who entered the program speaking only English, it has been hard to learn a new language, but they’re now starting to say phrases and understand directions in Spanish, Lopez Romero said.

At Monaco Middle School and Desert Pines, the dual language program focuses on English-language learners, Ruiz said, noting that the vision is to “leverage their first language.”

A handful of other Las Vegas and Washoe County schools already have a dual language program.

Strong Start Academy Elementary School, a public charter school sponsored by the city of Las Vegas that opened in August, has a Spanish/English program.

The Washoe County School District in the Reno area has Spanish/English programs at two schools.

‘More globally competitive’

Felicia Ortiz, president of the State Board of Education, was part of an informal advisory group that pushed for the Clark County School District to start a dual language program.

Ortiz said the district had a program when she moved to Las Vegas more than 20 years ago, but “it kind of fell apart.”

When she got on the Board of Education, she asked about dual language immersion frequently, because it’s something offered in her hometown in New Mexico.

“I just thought it was a smart idea,” she said.

Ortiz said she would love to see a program available for all children in the Clark County School District who want to participate.

And she wants the skill of speaking a second language to be seen as an asset in the community and schools.

The United States is behind other developed countries where children learn multiple languages in school, Ortiz said.

“I would love to make us a little bit more globally competitive,” she said.

Past attempts at dual immersion

Ruiz, who’s in his eighth year with the school district, said dual language programs existed before he arrived but lacked consistency in implementation.

In preparation for the new pilot program, district officials met with previous administrators and teachers in those programs, Ruiz said.

Struggles with past programs included a lack of professional support for teachers, he said.

And a big piece of a program’s success is whether the school principal is on board, Ruiz said. In the past, when principals changed at some schools, the incoming ones didn’t share the same vision for dual language programs.

He said there also wasn’t a set “feeder pattern” to determine which schools dual language students would attend from elementary through high school.

This time, Ruiz said, the district is being strategic and looking at sustainability. The goal is to grow the program in the future, whether as magnet schools or open enrollment schools, he said.

As for staffing, current teachers in the dual language program were already teaching in the school district, Ruiz said.

“What’s going to be important is how we support these teachers,” he said.

The district is using about $4.3 million in federal coronavirus relief money to provide interested teachers the opportunity to earn a master’s degree in English-language learning with an English Language Acquisition and Development endorsement at no cost to teachers.

“Project PUEBLO” started over the summer, and the one-year accelerated program is for licensed Clark County School District teachers, according to information provided by UNLV.

In total, 96 teachers, including several from Ronnow Elementary, are in the inaugural cohort and are slated to graduate in May.

‘It was wonderful’

Walker Elementary School in Henderson is among the school district campuses that previously had a dual language program.

Aimee Smithline, who’s in her 17th year teaching at Walker, spent about six years instructing second and third graders through the program. She spent the majority of that time delivering lessons in Spanish.

“It was definitely challenging, but it was wonderful,” she said. “It felt so great to bring Spanish to a community that really wanted it.”

Students were with their English teacher half the day and their Spanish teacher half the day, Smithline said.

At Walker, a “very small percentage” of students spoke Spanish as their first language, she said, noting that she was lucky if she had one a year.

Some in the community felt the dual language program didn’t meet their children’s needs, Smithline said, and left for nearby Smalley Elementary School when it opened in 2007.

But families who stayed, she said, loved the program. And some families moved into the school’s attendance zone because of the dual language offering.

Smithline, who’s currently a third grade teacher, said the program was phased out. She said the biggest reason teachers were given was that when Common Core State Standards were adopted in 2010 in Nevada, it was too challenging for students to learn everything they needed to know in both languages.

Instruction was instead delivered in Spanish for certain subjects, she said, and then Spanish was offered only as a special class.

‘History is repeating itself’

During a June 2021 presentation to the school board about plans for the dual language pilot program, some public commenters expressed support.

But others expressed concerns about whether there would be enough money and teachers — particularly amid a teacher shortage — to sustain the offering. And some said school district resources should instead go toward Global Community High School, which serves new immigrants.

Fernando Romero, who has been involved with education issues in Clark County for more than 50 years, told the board he signed off on an effort to establish a bilingual program in the district in 1980 as chairperson of an advisory council.

The program was underfunded and lacked sufficient bilingual education teachers with proper training, he said.

“Without going into detail, the project failed miserably,” said Romero, who’s president of Hispanics in Politics. “History is repeating itself.”

The school district is opting to implement the same kind of program knowing it’s going to fail, he said.

Romero — who ran unsuccessfully in the school board primary election this year — recently told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that he hopes the new dual language pilot program will work.

Sylvia Lazos, a UNLV law professor who has served on school district English-language learner committees for more than a decade, told trustees last year: “We had dual language programs in Clark County. We did not have enough trained teachers. We did not have leadership that could really support those programs in schools, and these dual language programs regretfully died.”

Lazos — who was previously a board member for Strong Start Academy — said English and math proficiency are dismal in the school district for English-language learners.

The district is making an investment in one pilot program but is neglecting the larger population of these students, she said.

Despite her concerns, Lazos said she’s a proponent of bilingualism, and it helps students value themselves and their family heritage.

How the program works at Desert Pines

At Desert Pines, Assistant Principal Stephanie Wright said the dual language program has nearly 30 freshmen — all English-language learners.

“It’s a very small group because it is our first year,” she said.

Desert Pines students take eight classes. Those in the dual language program receive instruction in their four core academic classes and physical education in English.

Their three elective classes — international relations, public speaking and Spanish literacy — are taught in Spanish. Next year, the school will add art as an elective option.

“Our students are doing amazing because it’s very difficult to start this program when you’re 14 and 15 years old,” Wright said.

The dual language program will gradually add in English speakers who are acquiring the Spanish language, she said.

Jefferson García said through a Spanish interpreter that he arrived in Las Vegas 1½ years ago from Guatemala and didn’t know any English. He said he likes being in the dual language program.

“It’s just a little difficult sometimes in English,” he said through an interpreter, because he can’t communicate with his teachers.

Kayla López arrived in Las Vegas about nine months ago from Mexico and spoke some English already.

She said she’s learning a lot through the dual language program, and there’s an advantage to being able to speak in two languages.

Students were chosen for the dual language program during visits to Desert Pines’ feeder middle schools last school year.

School employees talked with students about the program and looked at their scores on an English-language proficiency assessment. Then, they talked with their parents.

“We want to make sure the parents understand the program and that we have parental support,” Wright said.

Dual immersion at Ronnow

Back at Ronnow, Arriaza said she and Lopez Romero come from similar backgrounds. They’re first-generation immigrants and the first in their families to graduate from college.

Arriaza came to the United States at the end of kindergarten and didn’t speak English. She said it was difficult to understand the language, and she attended a predominantly white school.

As an adult exploring second career options, Arriaza was a substitute teacher more than a decade ago, including in the dual language program at Walker Elementary.

Lopez Romero was born in El Salvador and didn’t speak English when she moved to the United States.

In high school, she was focused on learning the language but “was missing the academic part,” she said, and that made things hard in college.

Lopez Romero said she was excited to hear about the school district’s new dual language program because children won’t be behind in their academics.

She started as a teacher assistant at Ronnow and then went through an accelerated program at UNLV to earn a bachelor’s degree in order to become a licensed teacher. Now, she’s working on two master’s degrees.

Lopez Romero said earning a college degree was the best thing that ever happened to her. And then, there was an opening in kindergarten — the grade she wanted to teach — at Ronnow.

“It was like my dream come true,” she said.

Contact Julie Wootton-Greener at jgreener@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2921. Follow @julieswootton on Twitter.

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