Federal Way schools may mix English and Spanish in effort to erase language barriers

A mixed English and Spanish language immersion school could be coming to Federal Way as early as next fall.

The school board heard a preliminary report on the project during a work study and toured a similar program in Mt. Vernon earlier this month.

“The trip was very informative,” spokeswoman Diane Turner said. “It was magic to see a mix of Latino Spanish speakers mixed with English-speaking students. The learning and the friendships that were being formed was powerful.”

The discussion regarding an immersion school has been going around since the late 1980s, but a serious investigation of the project began about a year ago.

An immersion school would take place in either a kindergarten, first grade or second grade classroom, or potentially a combination of the grades.

In the class, the students would consist of half Spanish speakers and half English speakers. Textbooks would also be split 50-50, then the students would learn in both English and Spanish. This would allow Spanish speakers, who may not know any English, to learn English while still learning their basic education — including math, writing and reading.

This is often a struggle for Spanish speakers, who sit in the classroom trying to learn in a language they don’t understand. English-speaking students would also learn Spanish at a young age and increase their fluency in the language.

The district is too early in to the process to know which elementary schools might have the program, although talk has centered on Valhalla, Mark Twain and Sunnycrest elementary schools — the schools with the highest Hispanic populations.

If the school board approves the measure to continue exploring the program at its Jan. 27 meeting, the district would begin looking into costs to start the program.

The district is facing a budget crunch. However, if the board determines this is a worthwhile project, it may still get the green light.

“Budgets are always about priorities and where you want to spend your money,” Turner said.

A final board decision would come no later than the end of March. The board could delay the project for a fall 2010 start.

Budget battle

Federal Way stands to lose at least $5 million from the usual funding in Gov. Christine Gregoire’s proposed education budget. Earlier this month, the Federal Way School District declared the budget to be unconstitutional. The school board passed a resolution supporting Superintendent Tom Murphy and his letters to the Legislature urging that education be funded first. The resolution cites Article IX of the Washington State Constitution, which states that it is “the paramount duty of the state to make ample provisions for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex.”

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