Highland Park D-112’s longer dual language in synch with research
Yolanda Saez teaches a seventh grade Spanish class to pupils enrolled in the dual language program at Northwood Junior High School in Highland Park. | Ryan Pagelow~Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 21, 2013 7:58AM
HIGHLAND PARK — From the moment sixth-graders step into Marina Palomo’s classroom at Northwood Junior High School, it’s nonstop Spanish, from the attendance roll call to the parting instructions for the day.
The few breaks from Spanish are when Palomo pauses — only to make sure her students are keeping up with the dialogue.
“Comprende?” she’ll ask, synchronizing a hand signal and a vocal clicking sound. The students use the same hand signal and clicking sound to assure her that, yes, they understand.
Unlike the introductory Spanish typically offered middle school pupils, this sixth-grade class brings together native-English and native-Spanish speakers who’ve been immersed in both languages since kindergarten or first grade.
It’s part of North Shore School District 112’s dual language program, which stands apart from others because the immersion is offered all the way up to eighth grade. Only two districts in Illinois continue dual language through eighth grade, a practice supported by research on the amount of time needed to gain academic proficiency in a language. Most dual language programs stop at fifth grade.
In District 112, 625 pupils are enrolled in the dual language program at Oak Terrace, Red Oak and Sherwood elementary schools as well as Northwood Junior High.
On Friday, a dozen school administrators in Chicago for the ASCD Conference dropped by Northwood for a visit. The organization represents Administrators and Supervisors of Curriculum Development.
Northwood co-principal Jennifer Ferrari said the decision to extend the program through middle school was made as the first cohorts were approaching fifth grade.
“What we have learned is that acquiring a social language takes one to three years. That would be conversational phrases like, ‘Hi. How are you?’” explained Ferrari. “It really takes between five and eight years to develop that academic language proficiency. We felt like we would be cutting it short, if we didn’t see it through when kids reach that point in their academics.”
At Northwood, about half of the student body is enrolled in dual language.
Dual language instruction is tilted toward Spanish in the early grades, starting with 80 percent Spanish and 20 percent English in kindergarten. By third grade, the ratio tapers to 55 percent Spanish and 45 percent English. From fifth grade on, the instructional ratio is about 40 percent Spanish and 60 percent English.
Northwood also offers a more traditional English Language Learner program for students who qualify for bilingual instruction, but are not in dual language, perhaps because they entered the district after first grade.
Three classes in middle school — Spanish, social studies and physical education — are delivered entirely in Spanish.
Ferrari, who has two children in dual language at Oak Terrace, said graduates are not only bilingual but they have a bicultural perspective that only comes from learning alongside those of other backgrounds before any biases have taken hold.
“We have learned anecdotally that once our students hit Highland Park High School, they are very accepting and open,” she said. “Our dual language kids really shine.”