PASCO -- In kindergarten, Ryan Calveard wasn't thrilled about sitting in a class where most everything was taught in a language he didn't understand.
"All they spoke was Spanish, all the time," Ryan said. "It was hard."
Now the 14-year-old Pasco High School freshman is taking advanced courses in English and science but still studying Spanish. He can carry on a conversation in either language with ease and says he wants to go into law enforcement, a career where bilingualism would be a big boost.
The language immersion program was tough, but Ryan said he wouldn't trade the experience for anything.
"It made me realize I have to study a lot harder," he said.
Ryan is among the first students who enrolled in the Pasco School District's dual-language program 10 years ago, aimed at creating fluent bilingual students from English-speaking and Spanish-speaking backgrounds. They reached high school this year, and teachers and district officials are holding up Ryan and his classmates as examples of the program's promise.
"They're a lot less inhibited, they're a lot less afraid to use what they know," said Bernie Hanan, a Spanish teacher at Chiawana High School who previously taught the district's dual-language kindergartners.
But students and district officials said the curriculum has provided another valuable benefit: greater appreciation of each student's cultural background and strong friendships.
Youngest struggle at first
Pasco created the dual-language program to help address requests from English-speaking parents to provide a language immersion program for their children, said Assistant Superintendent Liz Flynn.
The program fills two classes per grade level at Maya Angelou Elementary and McLoughlin Middle School. Kindergartners, regardless of their first language, are primarily taught in Spanish. Instruction in English increases at each grade level. Classes have an equal number of native English and Spanish speakers.
The youngest students struggle at first, noting some "would go home sometimes and cry" to their parents, but after a month would catch on, Hanan said.
The Kennewick School District began a similar curriculum shortly after Pasco. It has about 476 students in grades K-8 and its oldest students are eighth-graders at Highlands Middle School.
Richland school officials have expressed interest in beginning a language immersion program, possibly as a magnet school, but there are no plans yet.
'I really want to be trilingual'
Pasco High freshman Lucy Rickman, 14, doesn't remember much about her years as a dual-language student, she said. She dropped it in eighth grade because it conflicted with jazz band rehearsals.But the experience paid off. She's now taking pre-AP Spanish and advanced science, along with French.
"It was challenging but it's helping in my French classes," Lucy said. "My mom said I could try (French) out in high school and I was real excited. I really want to be trilingual."
Pasco Spanish teacher María Núñez notices a difference among students who were in the program and those who weren't, she said. Specifically, the former students have an expansive vocabulary and good reading and writing skills in Spanish, even compared to students who grew up in a Spanish-speaking home.
"It's amazing to see them fluent in two languages," she said, adding many bilingual students are interested in becoming licensed translators.
Fluency was a primary goal of the program, educators said, but it has broader academic effects. Flynn pointed out that mastery of a Latin-derived language such as Spanish can help students in science classes because of Latin-based scientific terms. And it helps in English language arts because it reinforces sentence structure and word usage.
Omar Escalera, who has taught in bilingual classrooms for seven years, said the first students earned two, possibly three, college-level credits before entering high school because of the program's high-level instruction. The students are generally more eager to challenge themselves and achieve success.
"It's satisfying. As a teacher it boosts your ego," Escalera said.
Breaking down walls
Jessica Mendoza's parents enrolled her in the program so she wouldn't lose fluency in Spanish as she progressed through school.
The Chiawana High School freshman has retained mastery of her first language -- and strong ties to students she perhaps wouldn't have befriended, she said.
"One of my friends, she's a native English speaker, and I helped her and she helped me," Jessica said.
Educators notice immersed students often have a better handle on cultural references within the Spanish and American spheres than other students. At the same time, they break down walls that often develop between students who don't share the same culture.
"They're a lot more receptive and open," Escalera said. "They're a lot more accepting."
Jessica and her fellow students, Lucy and Ryan at Pasco High, said their circle of friends includes classmates they sat next to each day at Maya Angelou and McLoughlin. They lament that they now attend different high schools.
"We all got really close and became really good friends," Lucy said.
Teachers challenged too
Today, more than 50 students are on waiting lists to get into language immersion classrooms, Flynn said, and the district is interested in expanding the number they have.
The big challenge isn't money, but rather finding instructors highly trained in academic subjects who can teach in Spanish and English.
The teachers have their challenges as well. Half of their students come from homes where Spanish isn't spoken, providing less opportunity for native English speakers to practice their language skills.
That means setting up opportunities for them to interact with native Spanish speakers, be it volunteering as interpreters for charitable organizations or practicing with Spanish-speaking parents, Escalera said.
The first group of Pasco students who entered kindergarten with Ryan are now settling into high school and making new friends. But they won't soon forget the friends they've already made because of their unique education.
"It's cool to talk to my friends in Spanish," Ryan said.