KENNEWICK -- Owen Carter looks like your average 10-year-old Kennewick boy -- short blond hair, glasses and lanky.
But when Owen gets around native Spanish speakers, he amazes them with his authentic accent in his second language, said his mother, Rebecca Carter.
And at home, Owen helps his 8-year-old sister, Braelin, with her Spanish homework.
Owen and Braelin are in the dual-language program at Edison Elementary School in Kennewick.
They're not taking one foreign language course -- their regular classes, such as math, science and social studies, are taught in English and Spanish.
But Owen is done with elementary school this summer.
So far, only Pasco has dual-language classes in middle school.
Now it looks like Kennewick will too this fall, at Highlands Middle School.
The Kennewick School Board on Wednesday told a group of district officials to continue with the process of starting a dual-language program at Highlands. The program could cost the district just more than $500,000 in the next three years, said Associate Superintendent Chuck Lybeck.
The program would take in the 50 students that have been in dual-language classes at Edison and Hawthorne elementary schools since 2005. Only about 20 of them live in the boundaries for Highlands.
The district held a parent meeting in January. About 85 percent of parents who had children in the elementary program wanted them to be able to continue in both languages in middle school.
That is not a surprise, as the benefits of such instruction for native speakers of either language are proven.
In the standardized reading tests -- in English -- administered in third grade in Kennewick, almost all of the native English speakers enrolled in the program scored as proficient. Two-thirds of native Spanish speakers in dual-language did, compared with just under half of native Spanish speakers who were enrolled in traditional programs.
In places where high schools have dual-language programs, the students in them have the lowest dropout rates, score at or above grade average on state tests and typically are college-bound, Lybeck told the school board.
Students also learn about other cultures and develop language skills that will put them at an advantage in the workplace later, he said.
These benefits do come at a cost.
The district would have to hire a new teacher each year that the group moves through the middle school grades and another comes up behind it. That means three teachers during the next three years, at an estimated cost of $64,000 each per year.
And the additional students kept in separate dual-language classrooms would require the district to add a portable classroom each in 2012 and 2013, at a cost of about $80,000 each.
It adds up to a maximum cost of $544,000, Lybeck said.
However, because of projected growth, Highlands needs portables anyway, said Principal Scott Parker.
And depending on how many students actually sign up for the program at Highlands, their teacher also could take on other classes, Lybeck said.
The cost projection is a "worst-case scenario," he said.
For Owen, not having classes in Spanish next year would be a worst-case scenario.
Taking math in Spanish "is a little bit harder," the boy said shyly. "But it's really worth it."
* Jacques Von Lunen: 509-582-1402; email@example.com