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Vail Valley: Bilingual trailblazers head to high school

Matt Terrell
Vail, CO Colorado
Preston Utley/Vail DailyDual-language teacher Aliria Bello, left, checks a paper written by Bailey Garton, right Thursday at Berry Creek Middle School.
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EDWARDS, Colorado ” It’s striking to hear a room full of eighth graders talk about the Louisiana Purchase and the War of 1812 in fluent, unbroken Spanish.

The non-bilingual ear could pick out names, like Lewis and Clark, and simple Spanish phrases, but the rest would be a mystery. Not a word of English is spoken in this lesson, except for maybe a whispered joke between a couple students. It’s the sort of conversation you’d expect to hear in a college level Spanish-history course.

Most of these students in the Berry Creek Middle School dual-language class have been in the same class together since second grade ” and many have been together since kindergarten.

They’re the inaugural class of the dual-language program, started at Edwards seven years ago. It’s a split mix of students who were brought up speaking Spanish in their homes and those speaking English, and since they were little kids, they’ve been learning and teaching each other’s language and culture.

Next year, they’ll start high school together at Battle Mountain.

“We all know each other pretty well. We fight like brothers and sisters. We’re like a family,” said Torey Hanrahan.

The dual-language program started grassroots-style with a group of parents who noticed the growing number of Hispanic students coming to the school and the growing number of families who knew little or no English.

This program, which had been successful in other school districts, seemed like a way to turn the growing clash of languages and cultures in Eagle County into something positive, said Bev Rasmussen, a parent who helped start the dual-language program in Edwards.

Students in the program would spend half their class time learning in English, and the other half learning in Spanish. This would put all these students on a level playing field ” they’d all be learning a foreign language, and they would all be able to teach each other.

“It was a big jump at first ” and it still is ” to get parents used to the idea that they’ll get half their content in Spanish,” Rasmussen said. “They wonder, ‘What if he’s not learning? What if they don’t understand? How will I help?’ It takes a big leap of faith.”

Talk with these students, and they’re quite aware of their unique place in the school district. Being bilingual, of course, sets them apart. And where other groups of students separate themselves by ethnicity, neatly between the Anglos and Hispanics, no such rifts exist in the dual-language program, they say.

“At first, in second grade, no one got along very well. After a while, when we started learning each other’s language, we got to know each other, and all became friends,” Hanrahan said.

Kelly Gardner, a teacher at Berry Creek, said the dual-language students are leaders at the school.

“They’re very critical thinkers “being in this program and seeing things from another culture’s perspective really helps with that,” Gardner said.

Haille Hogfeldt said there’s a lot of good things about being bilingual. Her language skills will help her get into college and give her a competitive edge when applying for jobs, she said.

The students are not only bilingual, but also biliterate, Gardner said. Often, when Hispanic students start learning English in traditional classrooms, they lose the ability to write and read in Spanish, although they still speak Spanish at home.

They also realize that, for now, they’re the guinea pigs for the school district.

Next year, they’ll be piloting the dual-language program at Battle Mountain High School, just as they started it at Edwards Elementary and Berry Creek.

“We have to deal with all the new stuff ” new classes, new teachers. They have to try everything on us,” Hogfeldt said.

Running a dual language program is difficult, Gardner said. Not only do you have to find teachers who are bilingual, but who are also highly qualified in certain subjects. It’s sometimes difficult, for instance, to find a Spanish-speaking teacher who is qualified to teach physics.

At Battle Mountain, they’ll start taking Spanish 4, and they’ll all be in their own class. Having grown up speaking Spanish, as opposed to the more textbook based learning in traditional foreign language classes, they’ll have different needs, Rasmussen said.

Most of the students, now that they’re fluent in Spanish, are eager to take on a third language in high school.

“It would be easy to learn French now, having already learned two languages,” said student Karen Parra.

To learn more about how the Dual Language Program works, view this story at http://www.vaildaily.com and click on the Power Point Presentation.

Staff Writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 970-748-2955 or mterrell@vaildaily.com.


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