English-Spanish approach could keep Federal Way kids in school

A proposed dual immersion language school could open at Sunnycrest Elementary in 2010.

The school board received a more detailed plan about the project at a work study meeting Tuesday.

"The whole process will be a challenge," Panther Lake Elementary principal Rudy Baca said. Baca has been put in charge of the team researching the proposal. "There is nothing easy about this."

The new program would be for kindergartners and first-graders in 2010, and each year would add one more grade to the program. There would be one class left in each grade that would be traditional, only speaking English. However, the classes would be taught partly in Spanish and partly in English.

About 44 percent of the student population at Sunnycrest is Hispanic, according to the district.

The format would have the morning lessons taught in one language, and the afternoon lessons taught in the other language. The goal is that both native and non-native English speakers and would become fluent speakers, readers and writers in both English and Spanish.

Some of the benefits, the research group found, is that students who speak both English and Spanish have been found to be more successful in their schooling. Students who had participated in a dual language program throughout their school career felt they were better prepared for college and the real world, and had better job market potential by being bilingual. Spanish-speaking students also said in several surveys that being in a dual immersion program kept them from dropping out of school.

"Their knowing Spanish is an asset to them and we don't want them to lose that," school board president Suzanne Smith said about the many Spanish-speaking students who are in the district. Smith is also the board's representative on the research group.

"There are so many families who would jump at the opportunity," school board member Amye Bronson-Doherty said, referring to both Spanish- and English-speaking families.

Similar programs

Board members and other district officials have already visited similar programs elsewhere in the region, including Madison Elementary in Mount Vernon, Burlington Elementary and some Portland, Ore.-area schools. These schools have already had a dual language program for several years.

The research team also found out that in Portland, the schools with the dual language immersion programs had fewer problems with mobility as students were choosing to stay at the school even after moving. Mobility, or the moving in and out of a school's boundaries, is something all of the Federal Way schools have seen an increase in lately. Over 50 percent of the district's students move around frequently, Turner said.

The plan is to slowly combine the classes until there is just one dual immersion class by fifth grade.

Superintendent Tom Murphy also brought up the possibility that Sunnycrest could consider becoming a K-8 school in order to keep the dual immersion program going as long as possible. This would need to be decided somewhat soon, as Sunnycrest is one of the district's elementary schools undergoing construction. The plans for the new school are about to get under way. The new school would open its doors in 2011.

Costs, etc.

The cost to begin the program would be about $125,000, with the vast majority of that going toward curriculum and library books. There would also be costs for assessments in Spanish, as well as for a consultant, teacher recruitment, community connections and professional development. The are several ways the district is considering paying for the expense, including using some of the textbook budget or grants or Title 1 funds, spokeswoman Diane Turner said. There will be the need to add one teacher per year as the program grows, and Turner said the goal is that with attrition and some staff switches, there will be no cuts or involuntary transfers for the current staff.

These are not the only changes coming for Sunnycrest.

In anticipation of the dual immersion school, current Panther Lake principal Rudy Baca will become the principal at Sunnycrest, while current Sunnycrest principal Tom Capp will become the principal at Panther Lake.

In addition, the school is changing its year-round school calendar and is instead going back to the traditional calendar held by the rest of the district.

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