Muscatine kindergartners will soon have a bilingual school option

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By Kassidy Arena, Iowa Public Radio

Muscatine Community School District will start its dual language immersion program at one of its elementary schools in August of 2022. The district already has a similar program for 4-year-olds in preschool at the Muskie Early Learning Center, but this will be the first time it’s brought into the district’s K-12 system.

One section of kindergartners at Franklin Elementary School will have the opportunity to sign up for the Spanish/English program that will extend to the next grade every year. It is not a prerequisite to be a student in the previous year’s immersion section.

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“It’s just something that will continue to help our students overall in life with problem solving skills, building leadership, self-confidence and then strengthen that bond that exists between our schools and our community,” Corry Spies, Franklin Elementary principal, said. “Our goal is making sure that our students are successful. So we know that developing proficiency in two languages will allow our students to score better than monolingual peers on our standardized tests. So we’re excited about that opportunity for students. At the end of the day, that’s really what it’s about.”

A little more than 18 percent of Muscatine residents identify as Hispanic or Latino.

It will start out 80 percent Spanish and 20 percent English in kindergarten, 70 percent Spanish and 30 percent English in first grade and so on until they reach 50/50 in third grade. Then, the 50/50 model will continue every year until the sixth grade. (The district worked with a consulting agency that recommended this model.)

Becky Wichers, the district’s director of student services, said the program will benefit kids who speak English at home, but especially those who speak Spanish at home.

“So it lets them be a leader in the classroom. And I think it really demonstrates the appreciation for our native speaking Spanish students and their families. And so I think culturally, it will really enhance that relationship,” she said.

There will be 25 open spots for the program. Applications open Jan. 3 and will remain open until April 15. Students are required to be registered within the district and fill out a separate interest form. Parents are required to attend at least one informational session.

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Wichers said depending on interest, there will be a waitlist.

Students will be chosen for the immersion program based on a lottery system. Location in the district won’t hinder a student’s chances, Wichers said, because the program will also offer free transportation from any of the district’s six elementary schools.

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As for Spies, he and the other educators in the Franklin Elementary building are preparing for the changes.

“One of the other pieces that we’re doing, obviously, is familiarizing staff here at Franklin with dual language learning, and making sure that we understand the importance of this to our community, to our students and how we’re going to be able to successfully implement this moving forward,” he said.

The new teachers will collaborate with each other and with Muskie Early Learning Center dual language teacher Noelia Espinal. Espinal currently has 19 students. Next year, there will be 20 spots available.

Wichers said one thing that really stood out to her during the process of implementing the new program is the support from Spanish-speaking community members. She noticed significant support from students’ grandparents.

“They were thrilled because now their grandchildren can communicate with the grandparents that are fluent speaking, but maybe their grandchild is not, and so they were very supportive. This is just great. And this is going to enhance our family and and appreciate our culture as well,” she said.

Wicher said she, Spies and the rest of the district is still learning as they go, as she admitted they aren’t yet experts. So they do foresee some challenges. Hiring teachers being one of them.

Luckily, Franklin Elementary has already signed on a bilingual kindergarten teacher preparing to take on the new role.

“I think one of the other concerns that we always want to make sure that we focus on is our student mobility and make sure that our population understands that if they are expressing interest in this program, that we’re going to be asking them to commit to five to seven years of remaining here in the program. And the benefit that that will ultimately have for their child will be a huge benefit to the family,” Spied added.

Other districts in Iowa do have dual language immersion programs, including West Liberty and Marshalltown, and Wichers said she is looking forward to networking with them. She said she is surprised more school districts aren’t working to offer such programs. She hopes other districts can learn from Muscatine’s example.

Long term, Wichers said she wants to continue the dual language immersion program into junior high school and enriching language classes at the high school level.

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