Want your first-grader to become fluent in Spanish and English?

Granite School District is jumping on the dual language immersion bandwagon, piloting two programs next school year. The one at William Penn Elementary in East Millcreek is full and has a waiting list. But the one at Vista Elementary in Taylorsville has room for about 15 more.

"I can't tell you how excited I am in terms of this program," Vista principal Julianne Clarke said. "I think it's going to make such a difference for these students in the work world someday and make a tremendous difference in our school and our understanding of one another and the cultures we have here."

Another perk, according to research: higher test scores and a narrowed achievement gap.

Teaching foreign language in elementary school is a national trend. Dual language immersion started in Canada in the 1960s and recently has become popular in the United States.

"The window for language acquisition is very wide from birth to the earlier years in life," William Penn principal Carol Syroid said. "We want to take advantage."

In Utah, seven school districts have dual language or immersion models, Granite District world language specialist Gregg Roberts said. Washington's Dixie Downs Elementary and two charter schools — DIA is opening in August in Salt Lake City — offer schoolwide programs. There are two more programs in Davis, one at Midvale elementary in Jordan, and one at Jackson Elementary in Salt Lake City. Salt Lake's Emerson Elementary has dual language immersion for gifted children.

While most programs here offer Spanish, Alpine has had some in Spanish and French for 20 years, Roberts said. The Portland public school system includes immersion in Chinese, Japanese and Russian.

Dual language immersion is not bilingual education, the controversial program California voters banned in 1998, Roberts said. For example, bilingual education puts Spanish-speakers in one classroom and teaches Spanish, with English as a component of instruction. Dual immersion has more equal numbers of native Spanish- and English-speakers, so kids act as language buddies, and academic language in both tongues is stressed.

"I think any school that opens its door to the idea to showing children there are other languages and other cultures ... will help other children realize they are going to be with those who don't speak English and come from other cultures, and they are the people they're going to be working with and doing business with on a daily basis," said Karin Palle, whose child, exposed to Danish and Spanish at home, will attend the William Penn program.

"It will help them tremendously on so many different levels."

Indeed, more than 30 years of research shows students in immersion classes do as well as or better than non-immersion peers on standardized tests given in English, according to "What Parents Want to Know about Foreign Language Immersion Programs," published in 2003 by the Education Resources Information Center online digest.

Also, some hypothesize kids in these classes benefit "from a leveling-of-the-playing-field effect" when everyone is working on a second language.

"For Spanish-speaking students we view this as closing the achievement gap," Roberts said, "and for those English-speaking students, we look at it as an enrichment."

The Granite programs will have children speak English the first half of the day, when they learn language arts from an English-speaking teacher. They'll speak Spanish in the second half, when they learn social sciences, science and math from a different, Spanish-speaking teacher.

While students won't directly study Spanish language, the ERIC article says they can develop proficiency by hearing and using it to learn those other subjects.

The schools will offer the program in two first-grade classrooms each; two other traditional first-grade classes also are offered, so parents can choose. The schools want a long-term commitment, as these students will get dual language immersion through sixth grade, Syroid said.

Teachers also will observe and train at the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition at the University of Minnesota, one of the U.S. Department of Education's Title VI National Language Resource Centers, aimed at boosting the nation's capacity to effectively teach and learn foreign languages.

Indeed, the program is not taken lightly. The expectation is proficiency in two languages. And leaders have no doubt kids will live up to it.

"To come out of elementary school with the gift of being not only bilingual but biliterate, that's an amazing gift to give to your child," Roberts said.

E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com