First dual-immersion class graduates
THE FIRST CLASS of dual-immersion students recently went back to Flowery to talk with the fifth graders. Front, from left, Ahtziri Fonseca, Noah Huyette, Jose Dominguez and Rhett Osborne. Middle row, from left, Janeth Contreras, Vianette Contreras, Elsa Martinez, Mario Rubio, Namiko Morales, Isabel Garcia, Shawn Echeverria and Yasmin Sanchez. Back row, from left, Dulce Baron, Jessica Hyde, Jeanette Acevedo, Zach Haviland, Violeta Escobar, Jorje Torres, Peter Sours and Luther Cenci.
Thirteen years ago, 26 kindergartners at Flowery Elementary School were part of an experimental program in the school district - a program called dual immersion.
Next Friday, 21 of those original 26 will be the first dual-immersion class to graduate from Sonoma Valley High School.
While the current school administration and school board are solidly behind the program, that wasn't always the case in the first couple of years.
And while some parents wanted their children to transfer out of Flowery in the early years, there's now a waiting list to get into the program.
"It was the seed that spread throughout the school," said Shawn Echeverria, who's on his way to Santa Monica College. That seed sprouted with a $940,000 grant for five years.
Four of the initial 26 didn't speak any English that first day of school 13 years ago.
"My mom was excited about it," said Jessica Hyde-Sippel. "My dad wasn't."
Not many remember the first day of school vividly with only Spanish being spoken in the classroom for the most part.
Noah Huyette was more concerned with making new friends than being taught in a foreign language.
It didn't bother Peter Sours. "I didn't think too much about it," he said. "I thought it was normal."
Echeverria, who spoke Spanish at home, learned English in preschool. "Now, in the first grade, we're back to Spanish."
Isabel Garcia was jealous of her older brother. "My brother is two years older, and he spoke English and I didn't."
And Jeannette Acevedo said it was hard to learn English when 90 percent of the instruction was in Spanish.
In Flowery's program, kindergarten and first-grade students receive 90 percent of their instruction in Spanish and 10 percent in English. In second grade, the ratio is 80-20 and drops to 70-30 in the third grade. Fourth- and fifth-graders receive instruction at a 50-50 level.
Switching back and forth between Spanish and English wasn't always easy.
Luther Cenci said the hardest part was a lack of formal instruction in grammar in both languages.
Garcia agreed. "The hardest part was learning to write in English along with spelling and grammar," she said.
"It was a challenge learning U.S. history in Spanish," said Garcia. "That presented some difficult challenges."
Elsa Martinez agreed. "We would learn something in Spanish, but if we were asked the same question in English, it was difficult."
And they had problems with history and social studies when they got to Adele Harrison Middle School, going through a number of teachers and learning out of order.
Kathleen Hawing was a teacher at Flowery those first couple of years. And she remembers the lukewarm support the program received at the beginning.
"The original grant was for five years, but the district was able to stretch it for a sixth year," she said. "The parents and the Flowery staff wanted the program to continue." And continue it did, through Adele Harrison Middle School and into the high school.
"The board made a commitment to the concept that Flowery would be an all dual-immersion school," she said. That commitment involved getting coordinators at both Flowery and Adele.
And the commitment paid off. In 2009, Flowery's dual immersion program, in combination with the companion program at Adele Harrison, won the Jack London Award for Educational Innovation from Sonoma State University's School of Education, as the best non-traditional education experience in Sonoma County.
The award was testimony not only to dual immersion, but also to the range of educational activities at the school, including a standards-based garden science program, weekly computer classes and library time with access to books in Spanish and English.
As a result of all this, in 2009 the school's CST (California Standardized Test) results met 17 of 17 AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) criteria.
While the dual immersion students were together at Flowery and Adele, since there's no formal program at the high school they are scattered around the campus. "The logistics are difficult at the high school," Hawing said.
"We all get along," said Jose Dominguez. "We have a bond. After eighth grade, we all went to Costa Rica for 10 days." He said that even though they're all not necessarily in daily contact with each other, when they get together, they never stop talking. "When we get together, it's like a big family."
Hawing's proud of how the inaugural class turned out. "All of the English-learners in the class are going on to higher education," she said.
One of the students, Noah Huyette, is the valedictorian of the senior class.
Recently, the graduating class went back to Flowery to talk with the school's fifth graders about their experiences. "They wanted to know all about the high school," Sours said.
Echeverria said the fifth graders wanted to know about the senior projects. "And they asked us where we were going to college," he said.
Most of them are planning to use their knowledge of Spanish in college. Of the 21 who will graduate from SVHS, all are planning to go to college.
"We fully support dual immersion," said school Superintendent Louann Carlomagno. "The program has grown and we're exceptionally proud of it."