1 of 10
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
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.
There's no academic reason not to do it. —Jo Carmiol

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."

To that end, both schools have been equipped with high-tech language labs, where students use headsets to talk with each other and record spoken assignments that teachers can review and evaluate. The labs are a pilot program for the district, which officials hope to continue incorporating into immersion courses in the future.

Carmiol said without the technology, it would take an entire class period to speak one on one with the students and it would require the rest of the class to simply wait their turn. By using the lab's headset system, she said, students spend 60 percent to 70 percent of the class period speaking and Carmiol is able to listen in on their conversations to make sure they stay on task.

"It makes it more manageable to have them speak more," she said.

The students have also noticed the difference. Keith Brough, one of Carmiol's students, said the language lab uses a lot more discussion between students than his elementary immersion courses.

"We usually just listened to the teacher," he said. "Here we can use the headphones and talk to people across the room."

Davis' dual-immersion program began in 2005 and has seen incredible growth. In its first year, the program consisted of 114 Spanish students at two elementary schools, Eagle Bay and Sand Springs. Today, three languages are taught to a total of 2,408 students across nine elementary schools that will eventually feed into six high schools. At each participating elementary school, Flint said, there is a "huge" waiting list to enter the program. 

Flint said that from the earliest stages of the program, parents have been excited about having their children participate.

"I thought we would have to do more selling," she said. "In Davis County, our parents get it."

Dual-immersion courses garnered some controversy when they first began appearing in the U.S. Many parents felt there was insufficient evidence of their effect and were unconvinced of the programs' successes. But in time, the alternative teaching technique has grown in popularity nationwide and in Utah with more schools offering a growing list of languages.

In Utah, the number of schools offering immersion courses has grown steadily each year. In 2009 there were 25 dual-language programs in the state and today there are 77, according to the State Office of Education. This year also marks the first time Portuguese dual immersion is offered, with programs at Rocky Mountain Elementary in Alpine School District and Lakeview Elementary in Provo.

Gregg Roberts, world language specialist for the office of education, said Utah is considered by many as a leader in immersion education in the U.S. Utah has the most immersion language programs in the country, according to the most recent data from the Center for Applied Linguistics, which does not include the 20 programs added this year. 

Proponents of immersion courses have long pointed to research that suggests children are better able to pick up a new language than adults. Flint also said that the courses are especially effective at attaining fluency because students use the language to learn other subjects, as opposed to merely studying the language itself.

In Carmiol's social studies class, students are not learning Spanish but are learning the standard seventh-grade curriculum, which includes Utah history, geography and science.

"We're talking about plateaus, we're taking about water cycles, but we're doing it in Spanish," Carmiol said.

The program has also resulted in academic success. Flint said Davis School District conducted extensive research on the pros and cons of dual immersion before offering the program. Schools around the nation had observed that immersion students typically lag behind their peers in third grade, catch back up in fifth grade and excel in eighth grade and beyond, she said. But that didn't happen in Davis.

"Our students have never lagged behind," Flint said. "They have always tested at or above their peer groups."

Carmiol said she's only known her students for three days and couldn't comment on their academic prowess. But she said there's no indication that the group requires any remedial or decelerated teaching.

"They are all on grade level," she said. "They're as good, if not better, than the students who didn't go through the program."

It was difficult in the beginning to attend class in a foreign language, but now that Bauco is proficient, she enjoys the program. She said she and most of her classmates began feeling truly comfortable with the language in the third grade or the beginning of fourth.

Students who stick with the program from elementary to high school are only one or two classes away from a foreign language minor when they enter college, according to Carmiol.

"There's no academic reason not to do it," she said.

E-mail: [email protected]