Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News
Michael Fillerup, director of bilingual programs for Flagstaff Unified School District, speaks to Provo school board Tuesday.

PROVO — Standardized test scores from a school district in northern Arizona showed that after two years of immersion in the Navajo language, students actually fared better in English than peers who did not learn Navajo.

But the students were learning language arts, social studies, math and science in Navajo. Only about 25 percent of the school day was spent using English.

The creator of the program believes the difference is in age.

When students learn multiple languages at a young age, they seem to quickly comprehend language concepts and speak without an accent, said Michael Fillerup, director of bilingual and English as a Second Language programs for the Flagstaff Unified School District.

Fillerup spoke about language immersion Tuesday with the Provo School District Board of Education. The Provo school board is considering converting an entire building into a dual immersion school starting in fall 2006.

Students would learn equally in Spanish and English. About half the student body would be from English-speaking houses, the other half from Spanish-speaking homes.

District officials hope the result will be higher achievement among Hispanic students. Other students would be academically challenged and bilingual when they enter the workforce.

Opponents of the plan say that it's too expensive when the district has other needs.

The U.S. Census Bureau has estimated that by the 2030s, 40 percent of students will be "language minorities" or English-learners.

In Provo, 29 percent of students are language minorities — nearly 20 percent from Spanish-speaking backgrounds. Future numbers are difficult to predict, Superintendent Randy Merrill said.

"Most U.S. schools are currently undereducating this student group" and the education dilemmas are "urgent policy questions," according a national study that Provo school officials are using to help guide the dual immersion ideals.

The study was conducted by George Mason University researchers Wayne Thomas and Virginia Collier. It is available at www.provo.edu.

The George Mason U. researchers have studied more than 200,000 students from throughout the United States involving more than 80 languages. They looked at different programs — dual immersion and five different English as a Second Language programs — and the students' academic achievements in the different programs. They found that dual immersion programs were the most successful.

"We would create a school where (minorities) were the heart and soul of the school," Fillerup said of the goals behind his Navajo school, which also has a dual immersion program for Spanish and English.

The Provo board is eyeing the Oakridge school as the likely site for dual immersion programs. The property is owned by Brigham Young University and the building ownership is split equally between the Provo District and the Nebo School District. The districts formerly ran a joint special education program there.

BYU officials have said they could provide money and student teachers. Fillerup told the board they should seize the opportunity if they get BYU support.

Provo district officials determined it would cost $15 million to purchase and run the school as an elementary for the next 10 years.

Parent Angelo Rodriguez's main concern is money. He said there is already a program operating at Timpanogos Elementary and suggested the district look into satellite or Internet programs.

"Who are you trying to cater to, the at-risk students or the gifted and talented students?" he asked.


E-mail: lhancock@desnews.com