Tri-Cities school district is giving kindergartners an early start on a second language

Chris Reykdal talks about school dual language programs

Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal talks about his plans to make dual language education a priority for the state. He said Pasco is a model other districts look to.
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Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal talks about his plans to make dual language education a priority for the state. He said Pasco is a model other districts look to.

When school starts later this month, dozens more Pasco students will be offered the chance to learn a second language.

Kindergarten students at six schools — four more than last year — will start learning in English and Spanish, with the aim of mastering both before reaching middle school.

The expanded offering will add a dual-language classroom at Captain Gray STEM, Edwin Markham, Mark Twain and Whittier elementary schools.

Those will be in addition to the programs already open at Maya Angelou Elementary and two at Barbara McClintock elementary.

“In our district, we believe that language is an asset,” district officials said about the program. “As we work to expand our dual language program, our ultimate vision is for any Pasco student who wants to become bilingual to have the opportunity to do so.”

The classes are divided in equal measure between English- and Spanish-speaking children, and the youngsters spend half of their time learning in each language.

McClintock STEM01
The new Barbara McClintock STEM Elementary School is on Road 60 in Pasco. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

The district began offering dual-language education at Angelou in 2004, and it’s been popular, primarily with parents of English-speaking students.

Last year, the district had about 500 students enrolled in the program between Angelou and McClintock. With the expansion, the district will have a class of about 100 more kindergartners.

The program will follow those students as they progress through the grades, and a new dual-language class of kindergarten students will start next year.

The district moved bilingual teachers into the positions at those schools, said Shane Edinger, the director of public affairs.

A shining example

“It is not understated and known around the state that Pasco is rapidly becoming the foremost center of light energy and positivity and programming in bilingual education,” state Superintendent Chris Reykdal told a room full of Pasco teachers recently.

Reykdal Pasco School
September 19, 2017 - State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal checks out a classroom computer assignment that fifth-grade student Tha Dar Ler works on at Marie Curie STEM Elementary School in Pasco. Reykdal visited classrooms at the Pasco school before a news conference to announce submitting an Every Student Succeeds Act plan to the federal government. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

Reykdal was speaking during the district’s second-annual Language is Power conference. He spoke with educators who work with students who are learning English. Last week’s conference focused on ways to help English language learners succeed.

An advocate for bilingual education, the state superintendent was invited after people heard him speak at a New Mexico conference last year. He thanked the district’s teachers and leaders for their help, adding that the state needs to rethink how it handles bilingual education.

In many places, schools believe that students who speak in a different language are at a deficit, Reykdal said. They work to make sure the student can speak English, and treat the other language like it’s holding the child back.

“Schools take students who already speak Spanish and try to make sure they speak English,” he said.

The school leader pointed out that nearly two-thirds of all of the people in the Western hemisphere speak Spanish, and giving more children the chance to be bilingual will lead to stronger trade connections and more opportunities for success as adults.

“Teach them critical thinking and powerful communication skills, and it doesn’t matter what industry flourishes, we’ll be ready for it,” he said.

Teacher incentives

The superintendent also shared his plans to promote bilingual education. He is looking to create an incentive program that pays bilingual educators more money for their abilities. It’s a necessary addition since there simply aren’t enough bilingual teachers to offer these programs to every student.

He hopes this kind of program will offer universities an incentive to expand their educational programs. He hopes to see future teachers spend four full years in school and then get paid for their student teaching.

Chris Reykdal, Washington’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, talks to reporters about his long-term plan for funding public education in Washington state on Wednesday, May 24, 2017, in Olympia, Wash. Ted S. Warren AP

“I don’t think it will happen in a 60-day (legislative) session,” he said. He envisions an expansive bilingual education plan for the state taking years of work, but he added that these programs would increase the amount of bilingual education and educators in the state.

“We are giving students a better pathway to what they’re passionate about,” he said. “This is a truly, truly powerful thing for culture.”