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Elevating the conversation: Dual-immersion students, classes grow up

Published: Sunday, Sept. 9 2012 4:40 p.m. MDT

Brittan Gee and Carson Tait have a conversation during a Spanish III honors class at Farmington Junior High School on Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012. The teacher has the ability to use her own headset to listen in on the conversation.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

FARMINGTON — In Profesora Jo Carmiol's classroom at Farmington Junior High School, flags from Spain, Costa Rica and Mexico hang on the wall next to motivational posters and quotes from Socrates translated into Spanish.

But Carmiol wasn't teaching Spanish on Thursday. Instead, her students were loudly cheering on their classmates as they competed in a boys vs. girls quiz about Utah's geography, rushing to identify features like Lago Powell and the Cordillera de Wasatch on an image of the state projected on the wall.

"As long as you talk in Spanish, you can talk all you want," said seventh-grade student Cassidy Bauco.

Bauco, like the rest of her classmates, has been using a second language since she was in the first grade to learn subjects like math, history and now junior high social studies. With Spanish-, French- and Chinese-speaking elementary students getting older each year, Davis School District is venturing into uncharted territory for Utah and the next inevitable step in language education this fall: junior high immersion programs.

"We're sort of blazing the trail," said the district's secondary world languages supervisor, Bonnie Flint. "We had to think, 'What are we going to do for these kids?' We couldn't just drop them."

Carmiol is quick to point out that other school districts, such as Salt Lake City and Alpine, have made efforts to accommodate immersion students when they leave elementary school. But Davis is the first district in Utah to create a secondary immersion program that follows students as they move toward high school graduation.

Two schools, Farmington and Legacy junior highs, are currently offering Spanish-only language arts and social studies courses for incoming dual-immersion students. In time, as those students move forward to other grades and their bilingual peers leave elementary behind, more classes and more schools will follow suit.

In eighth grade, students will be taught health and humanities in their second language, Flint said. In ninth grade, they'll take geography and AP language courses.

In 2015, French immersion students will reach the junior high level, followed the next year by Chinese immersion students. By then, the first Spanish students will have already moved to the high school level.

"It's going to be quite the ballet when we get them all in the higher grades," Flint said.

Unlike an elementary school dual-immersion program — where students are taught for half the day in English and the other half in their immersion language — junior high students in Davis will spend only two of their seven periods in a second language. Flint said the challenge in secondary education is the number of specialized courses and electives, like band or physical education, that don't lend themselves to immersion education. Officials had considered an immersion science course, she said, but ultimately decided against it because of the technical vocabulary required.

Carmiol is, herself, a product of a Utah dual-immersion program. She participated in one of the earliest pilot programs in the state between 1981 and 1987 at Cherry Hill Elementary in Alpine.

"I remember it was fun," she said. "We could come home and speak about our parents in Spanish."

Carmiol went on to complete AP Spanish in the ninth grade and began studying a third language, German, in high school. When she graduated, she was named a Sterling Scholar in the foreign language category.

She said seventh-grade students who participated in an elementary immersion program are typically at a level of fluency comparable to an LDS missionary at the end of their two years of foreign service. Students tend to have a broader vocabulary, she said, but don't have the same practice speaking the language.

"They tend to understand a lot, write a lot, but they don't get many opportunities to speak," she said. "That's what we're focusing the seventh-grade curriculum on: talk, talk, talk."

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