Sixth-graders Osvaldo Jimenez and Izabel Stohel said students in their dual language class at McLoughlin Middle School in Pasco sometimes don't excel in their first language.
Osvaldo, 12, said English-speaking students don't always get dictation and composition in English right the first time. Likewise, Izabel, also 12, said there was a day in class when a native Spanish-speaking student stumbled when reading in Spanish, only to be followed by a native English speaker who read the next passage in Spanish almost flawlessly.
"Someone shouted, 'He's a white kid and he's reading better than you,' " Izabel said, laughing.
The Pasco and Kennewick school districts each have several hundred students in dual language programs. Both districts are planning to expand the programs a grade level next year -- to seventh grade in Kennewick and to eighth grade in Pasco.
The districts have their challenges in offering the program, from finding qualified staff and classroom space, to criticism by district residents of teaching students in a language other than English. But educators, parents and students said there is great value in the programs.
"Some people may think we're going to confuse the kids or cause problems. It's quite the opposite," said Blanca Harvey, sixth-grade teacher for dual language students at Highlands Middle School in Kennewick.
Pasco implemented its dual language program in 2004 and offers it at Maya Angelou Elementary School and McLoughlin.
Liz Flynn, executive director of student achievement in Pasco, said native English speakers came to the district and said they wanted their children to become fluent in Spanish.
Kennewick followed with its own program in 2005 after parents heavily lobbied for it. It is offered at Hawthorne and Edison elementary schools and Highlands.
The districts have about 50 students per grade level in the program, with about a 50-50 split between native English and native Spanish speakers.
Each district approaches the dual language curriculum differently. Kennewick teachers aim for a more 50-50 split between teaching in Spanish and English. Pasco, at the lower grade levels, teaches more in Spanish and increases the amount of English instruction as students advance with each grade.
The districts also change up the subjects taught in each language. Harvey said Kennewick students in third through fifth grades are taught math in Spanish, but now are learning history, social studies and language arts in Spanish.
Highlands sixth-grader Daissie Marischal, a native Spanish speaker, said the transition made math a little more difficult for her this year, but the change has its trade-off.
"I enjoy history now, though," the 12-year-old said.
Flynn said she has seen Pasco seventh-graders, even native English speakers, adapt another way to doing math word problems in English after being taught recently in Spanish: they translate them back into Spanish.
"They can do everything in English; it's just easier for them to solve them in Spanish," she said.
Parents and educators, and even students, pointed out numerous benefits of the dual language program. Harvey and Flynn said students taught in a dual language environment typically perform better when it comes to test scores, regardless of subject.
Gracie Torres has three children in Pasco's program and Rebecca Carter has two children in Kennewick's program. They said their native English-speaking children are getting a better education because they are learning in two languages.
Additionally, their bilingual skills come in handy outside the classroom. Carter recalled how her sixth-grader Owen, 11, was able to translate for the family on a cruise to Mexico. Torres said she takes her children to a food bank twice a month where they help translate for people seeking aid who speak only Spanish.
Daissie said it makes it easier for native Spanish speakers to retain mastery of Spanish, a key connection to their culture, while also becoming fluent in English. Owen is already thinking about how the program will help him after he graduates high school.
"You have a lot more opportunity," he said. "I can minor in Spanish in college."
However, both districts have space concerns and the problems of finding and hiring staff qualified to teach in a dual language program are ever present.
The Kennewick School Board approved Wednesday a request to expand its dual language program to the seventh-grade next year. Doing so will require a portable classroom be moved to Highlands to accommodate the class and hiring a new teacher who is able to teach math and science in fluent Spanish.
Flynn said Pasco is facing a similar dilemma when it comes to hiring a teacher as it expands its program to the eighth-grade next year. If a qualified teacher can't be found, she said dual language eighth-graders may receive language instruction in Spanish alone.
Having the programs doesn't add significant costs to the district's expenses. Kennewick board member Dawn Adams said her district would have to educate the dual language students regardless, and have to provide teachers, textbooks and other materials.
Officials, teachers and parents said they also hear criticism about teaching students in a language other than English. Rebecca Carter said much of it comes from anti-immigration sentiments, but she and others stand by the programs, which she said clearly have demand.
"There are parents who are angry their kids are on the wait list," she said.
Kennewick currently has 54 applicants for 26 slots in next year's kindergarten dual language class. Pasco school officials said past waiting lists have had more than 40 students on them.
Torres said she thinks it's important for people in the United States to know English but that being bilingual enhances her children's futures. She said her 13-year-old son already is thinking of becoming qualified as a translator when he turns 16 and learning French, Japanese or Russian.
"As a parent you want your children to do better, to get further up the ladder," she said.
For Daissie, there's one other benefit: a tighter bond with her little brother, who is in first-grade in Kennewick's program. The two do their homework together and compete to see who will finish first.
"Sometimes I'll pretend to take longer so he wins," she said.