Students Bloom in WDMCS’ Spanish Immersion Classroom
When Molly Babbitt comes home from kindergarten, she likes to be the teacher instead of the student. Like lots of kids, she sets up her own make-believe classroom and students to teach—but also borrows her mother’s scarves. “Now I’m in English,” she says, putting on a blue scarf. When the red scarf goes on, “Now I’m in Spanish.”
Molly is mimicking what she’s seen in her own classroom—the kindergarten immersion classroom at Western Hills Elementary.
Just like in Molly’s imaginary classroom, the real immersion class started the year by using different colored scarves and materials to give students a visual cue about what language they should operate in at that moment. West Des Moines Community Schools (WDMCS) World Language curriculum lead Reba Abraham helped plan the strategy and selected red for Spanish, blue for English, and purple for flexible time.
“They needed to know which language I was in and when we were going to switch,” teacher Rosa Bonilla said. “Not only were they new to Spanish and immersion, but they were new to ‘kindergarten world.’”
This first kindergarten class kicks off the WDMCS Dual Language Immersion Program after years of research and planning. When the opportunity to host the class became available to WDMCS elementaries, Western Hills Principal George Panosh welcomed the program with enthusiasm.
“At the time, my thought process was, ‘If this had been available to my kids, I would have loved to have that,’” Panosh said. “If I’m willing to do it for my kids, why shouldn’t I be willing to do it for all the kids here at Western Hills?”
Once the school was selected, the program needed a teacher. Bonilla was a natural fit: She is bilingual and biliterate, has experience teaching Spanish and kindergarten at Western Hills, and student taught in an immersion classroom. That program taught in Spanish the majority of the time, but this program uses a 50/50 dual language model—where roughly half the students are native Spanish speakers and half of the classes are taught in Spanish.
“It’s a model that’s built for language learners, so it helps them succeed,” Abraham said. “There’s research that shows when you learn in your native language, it helps transfer those skills into your second language.”
Now just a few months into the school year, students no longer rely as heavily on the color coding. They have learned their schedule—math in Spanish, science in English, literacy in both languages—and are more comfortable switching between Spanish and English. They know which adults they can speak Spanish with, like classroom associate Silvia Rodriguez, and which adults best understand English, like their specials teachers and the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teacher. Students are also able to identify cognates and understand simple phrases and directives.
“I can now give simple step directions like, ‘Go shut the door,’” Bonilla said. “‘Cierre la puerta. Sientate. Apaga la luz.’ And I’ll just do a hand signal and they know what I want. I don’t have to translate. I don’t have to ask, ‘What am I saying?’ That’s pretty awesome.”
As the students’ Spanish and English skills develop, they are also growing in other areas. Panosh said that was one of the major benefits he noticed when he first heard about the program and one reason he wanted to bring it to Western Hills.
“We knew that the research showed they would begin to outperform their peers in all academic areas,” he said. “For a while, it would be a little bit difficult—they might have a year or so where they’re learning that extra language and their reading scores wouldn’t be as high. But eventually their reading scores would grow, as well as everything else, because of the way their minds are being shaped by this.”
This particular class has already started to show signs of that kind of growth. While the evening out of achievement usually does not happen until third or fourth grade, Bonilla said her students are growing like typical kindergartners, even exceeding expectations. During preparation for fall conferences, she saw that almost all of her students were doing equally well in Spanish and in English, not “losing one to the other.”
“The parents that I have talked with are thrilled with what their kids are coming home with, how they’re responding to it,” Panosh said. “They love that their kids are excited about school. When I go into the classroom, I see very happy children.”
Those socioemotional benefits have become apparent in other ways, too. Students have learned to support each other and to ask the teachers for help when they need it. Some students have found a new passion for school or a needed confidence boost.
“One particular student that I saw in preschool, she was such a shy person—she would hide if I walked in the room. She is blossoming out,” Panosh said. “She loves to be able to communicate in Spanish, so it’s really helped her feel in her comfort zone.”
Beyond the immediate positive benefits, immersion programs are shown to bolster academic achievement and career options for students later in life. With interest from current and potential families, as well as area districts and colleges, the WDMCS immersion program is proving to be a hit with students, parents, and staff.
“It’s a huge benefit for our students, and the kids love it,” Abraham said. “It’s so amazing to see their growth.”