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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Alta View Elementary first-grader Sage Brown learns Spanish in Sandy Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012. The school was honored by the Spanish Embassy as a model for dual-immersion language education.

SANDY — A Canyons School District elementary school is being honored this week as a model for dual-immersion language education, further evidence of the growing popularity of teaching a second language to students when they're young.

Students and faculty at Alta View Elementary bid "bienvenidos" on Tuesday to a group of dignitaries from the Spanish Embassy and education officials from the United States and Canada, who visited the school in recognition of its inclusion into the network of International Spanish Academies.

"It's a great honor," said Alta View Principal Valerie Shaw. "It means what we've been doing and working hard for is paying off."

Alta View is one of 40 schools in the state that offer Spanish dual-immersion and the third Utah school to receive the ISA designation — after the North Davis Preparatory Academy and Eagle Bay Elementary School. Students in the programs spend half of their day being taught in an immersion language and typically enter the program during the first grade.

Shaw said Alta View's dual-immersion program was started four years ago, partly as a strategy to reverse declining enrollment numbers, and today roughly 275 students participate in the program. Because of classroom and staffing limitations, students are selected by a lottery process, and currently the school has a wait list of approximately 30 students, Shaw said.

Dual-immersion courses have steadily grown in popularity in Utah. According to the Utah State Office of Education, there were 25 dual-immersion programs in the state in 2009, compared to 75 today. 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.

Utah is also recognized as a national leader in dual immersion programs. The state has the most immersion programs in the country according to the most recent data from the Center for Applied Linguistics, which does not include 20 new schools that began offering programs this year.

Guests to Alta Vista's school Tuesday were given a quick tour of the program, sitting in on first-, third- and fifth-grade classes where students were practicing vocabulary, working through math equations and reading — all in Spanish.

Maria Contreras, a fifth-grade immersion teacher, attributed the school's success to several factors. She said the Alta View staff works well together and the district gives teachers the training, materials and support they need to succeed. But more importantly, she said, students come to school ready to learn.

"It's their parents that are fostering that attitude at home, I'm sure," she said. "What you get is a classroom where students get involved and the teacher has great support."

Alta View's faculty have made efforts to involve traditional students in the learning of a second language, by teaching and encouraging the use of simple Spanish phrases and vocabulary school-wide. The administration is also looking into the creation of after-school community education classes for students and families interested in learning a second language.

In addition to the prestige of being named an ISA school, Shaw said, the designation could help the school recruit guest teachers from outside the United States. Alta View currently has three guest teachers from Spain on staff, including Contreras, which Shaw said likely helped set the school apart from other ISA applicants.

She also said that being part of the ISA network allows schools to share best practices and learn from one another.

"We can build off the knowledge and expertise of many people," she said.

In welcoming the visiting dignitaries, Canyons Superintendent David Doty said he worked as a Spanish teacher earlier in his career and said he has an appreciation for language education. He said that development in Central and South America makes it all the more important that students gain an ability to communicate in Spanish.

"Having the dual immersion program is really a thrill for us," he said. "I'm just grateful that our kids here in our district have these opportunities."

Shaw said enrolling a student in dual immersion courses is among the best things a parent can do for their child.

"The value of a second language is so beneficial to kids," she said. "We're living in an international world and kids need to be able to relate to other cultures."

Canyons District has a total of eight dual-immersion programs in Spanish, French and Chinese, said Ofelia Wade, the district's dual immersion coordinator. Wade said the ISA designation is a form of validation for the promises of high quality education the district has made to parents.

She said the goal is for all of the district's Spanish programs to eventually apply to the ISA network. All schools implement a similar teaching model and are seeing similar success, but the experience and maturity of Alta View's program made it the most likely school to receive the honor this year.

"Alta View is the program that has been in existence the longest," she said. "That maturity comes from teachers who have been in the program for several years."

Alta View will be officially recognized as an ISA school during a ceremony Wednesday at BYU. The ISA is an cooperative education project between schools in the U.S and Canada and Spain's Ministry of Education and Science.

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com