A stunning educational success
On Friday, June 3, a major milestone will occur in the history of the Sonoma Valley Unified School District. That's when 22 members of the 1998 Flowery Elementary School kindergarten class will graduate from Sonoma Valley High School fluent in English and Spanish and headed - every one of them - to college. And one of those students - Noah Huyette - will deliver the valedictory address.
That group is the inaugural graduating class of Flowery's ground-breaking dual immersion program, a Spanish/English curriculum designed from kindergarten to immerse students in bilingual, bi-literate and bicultural learning.
In 2009, the program, which extends through Adele Harrison Middle School and into high school, won the Sonoma State University School of Education's annual Jack London Award for Educational Innovation as the best non-traditional education experience in Sonoma County.
Mary Gendernalik-Cooper, then dean of the School of Education, said at the time that in the 22 years since the award began, the dual immersion program was the first ever to receive a "10" from all three judges in every category. One of the judges commented, "These were the most engaging classrooms I have seen in 20-plus years as an educator."
Friday's graduation comes at a time when the value, the utility, even the appropriate use of Spanish in public schools has been called into question by some who argue that Hispanic immigrants should learn and speak English exclusively. We understand the political and emotional sentiment behind that position but it has little relevance to the experience of children in a classroom.
Estimates vary, but there are at least as many native Spanish speakers in the world as English speakers, 35 million of whom live in the United States. And while English has become the lingua franca of international commerce, technology and government, Spanish is nudging past English as the most-widely spoken language on Earth, after Mandarin Chinese.
An estimated two-thirds of the world's children are raised bi-lingual and Americans are notoriously illiterate in languages other than English. Successful participation and competition in a largely bilingual, multicultural world argues for the kind of early language education both English and Spanish native speakers are getting at Flowery.
And that education helps bridge the cultural gap that has grown between the Anglo and Latino communities.
There is even growing evidence that growing up bilingual enhances learning and cognitive capacity.
The Sonoma Valley Unified School District has one of the county's highest percentages of English-language learners, a fact that may contribute to the unfortunate and inaccurate perception that our public schools are inferior to those in other districts.
The success of Flowery's dual immersion program, which was equally innovative and daring when it was launched 13 years ago, is a reassuring signal that we're doing something right.
We salute the program and the students whose graduation confirms its success.