Believing in the benefits of understanding a second language, the Saugus Union School District is starting a dual language immersion (DLI) program next year at Highlands Elementary School.
The district unveiled the plan on its website following months of discussions with parents, teachers and a new superintendent, and the board approved it in December. The district held its first two informational meetings this week. One estimate put the turnout at Tuesday’s session at Highlands at 75-100 people.
According to the RAND Corporation, between 1,000 and 2,000 such programs exist nationally,
although this would be the first in Santa Clarita. Assistant Superintendent Isa De Armas said she knows of programs in Glendale, and that new Superintendent Colleen Hawkins worked in a similar program in the Corona Norco Unified School District.
RAND’s report noted that in Portland, Ore., DLI students outperformed their non-immersion peers on state accountability tests, and they reached English proficiency faster.
Many studies have shown that DLI programs don’t affect a student’s English skills, and De Armas said that’s important because California schools require English proficiency.
The program’s design is to make students bilingual and biliterate in English and Spanish, meaning they can read, write, speak and understand both languages, regardless of what language is spoken at home (the district’s website says not to change what is spoken at home).
Two kindergarten classes (maximum 55 students) at Highlands will be taught at a ratio of 90 percent in Spanish to 10 percent in English. The next year, as first graders, the classes will be taught at a ratio of 80:20, and so on until fourth grade, when the ratio is 50:50. That ratio will continue through fifth and sixth grades.
De Armas said although Spanish is the second language, it could be any language. The Glendale Unified School District currently offers seven DLI programs.
De Armas said many parents, especially those of first and second graders, wondered why they start only at kindergarten.
“We had to start somewhere,” she said. “I wish we could offer it in all grades.”
Reasons for the limited scope to start include: Highlands has lower enrollment and is centrally located; teachers need a special credential, and the district has two, De Armas said; and she wasn’t sure of the interest level until the informational meetings.
However, if the interest level is high enough, De Armas said she would consider a third class, provided the district could find another properly credentialed teacher.
California passed Proposition 63 in 1986, which declared English the official state language. Local resident Greg Aprahamian, whose kids went through the Saugus district and are not in the William S. Hart Union High School District, said a DLI program is problematic in that it undercuts English at the state level.
Furthermore, Aprahamian said, he considers the program not dual-language but Spanish-dominant.
“The English language is a unifying force in our country, in California,” he said. “We need to communicate with one another, and English is how we do it.”
De Armas said regardless of what languages are spoken in schools, the state requires students to demonstrate English proficiency. “Dual language immersion lets you learn another language instead of waiting until junior high or high school,” she said.
Aprahamian also objected to the district finding money for this program, but when he urged the district for years to find money for art, music and gym, he was told there weren’t enough funds.
He also said he finds it unfair that his property taxes fund the schools, but the district will accept transfers into the DLI program, and those people won’t be paying into the schools.
“If you live in Palmdale or Sylmar and you work in Santa Clarita, this is a big opportunity,” he said. “We’re paying Saugus housing prices. We’re not paying Palmdale housing prices. We’re not paying Sylmar housing prices. We have to share the resources with people not paying for it.”
He also said he fears those transfer students won’t score as high on standardized tests, thereby lessening the value of the school district and, consequently, affecting home values.
“We’ll have to see what the performance is,” Aprahamian said. “Will these students be proficient as the students doing the regular curriculum in English? I don’t think so.”
De Armas said Saugus district parents have first crack at this program. Once all Saugus students have their spots, any other students are welcome to transfer into the district, provided they satisfy the two school districts’ transfer rules.