Teton County Considers A Dual-Language Immersion Magnet School

Jan 8, 2016

3rd graders in Colter Elementary’s Dual Language Immersion Program
Credit Aaron Schrank

In a kindergarten classroom at Jackson Elementary School, students sit in pairs swapping stories. Each pair includes a kid who speaks Spanish at home and one who speaks English. 

“I’m really passionate about this dual immersion program, because it’s an amazing opportunity for kids to come together,” says teacher Chris Bessonette.

In his classroom, these 20 kids speak and learn in English. But his partner teacher next door, Katie Schult, teaches in Spanish.

“So, we have two groups of children and halfway through the day, they switch so that 50 percent of their day is in Spanish and 50 percent of their day is in English,” Schult says.

Next week, the Teton County School District Board will decide whether this popular dual-language-immersion program—which currently serves about 480 Jackson students—will be housed in a single magnet school—instead of across multiple schools.

The conversation comes as Jackson builds a new elementary school south of town. Right now, most Jackson elementary students attend one school in kindergarten through second grade and another for third through fifth grades. But district officials are considering making all of the town’s elementary schools K-5. Amid the reshuffle, the community is taking a hard look at dual-immersion.

For young English speakers, Schult says the program offers the chance to be bilingual—an important skill in Jackson and around the country.

“But it can be really hard for them at the beginning because they are 5 or 6 years old and they don’t know what I’m saying and I don’t switch over to English for them,” Schult says.

But educators say that forces kids to adapt and work together in ways they wouldn’t in other classrooms. And for Spanish speakers, the program can provide educational foundations in the student’s first language—to foster deeper learning.

“Spanish-speaking students come into the room and school is kind of an intimidating place for them,” says Bessonette. “But half the day, they get to be the leaders. They get to be the kids that know what’s going on. And that scenario doesn’t happen in a non-dual immersion classroom. Those kids are oftentimes playing catch up the first month, the first year, the first five years of school.”

School district officials say native Spanish speakers in the program earn higher average standardized test scores than those not in the program. As demand for dual-language learning surges around the country, Jackson’s 7-year-old program remains one of just a handful in the Cowboy State. But its appeal is growing in a town where the young school-aged population is nearly split between native Spanish and English speakers.

“We consistently have anywhere from 1.5 times to 2 times as many people apply as we have space available,” says Chad Ransom, Teton County School District’s director of second language services.

“At some point, the program becomes big enough to fill a whole school, so that becomes part of that conversation.”

That conversation is the one the school board is having about how to best design a new elementary school and fix the district’s capacity issues. Ransom says if they decide to have 3 separate K-5 schools in Jackson, it makes sense for one of them to be a dual-immersion magnet school. 

“It’s really difficult to continue to develop curriculum and professional development for teachers and have a coherent model when you’re across multiple schools,” Ransom says.

Right now, dual-immersion students attend Jackson or Colter Elementary. Thomas Ralston teaches third-graders in the program, and he says a whole school model would allow the students to be more, well, immersed, and that has pros and cons.

“If kids grew up in a pure dual environment, where everybody was on the track to being bilingual, that would be very, very powerful,” says Ralston. “The con to that is I really worry that there is going to be some sort of stereotype about, ‘oh, you go to this school. And you’re in dual—or you’re not in dual. I just don’t want people to feel left out.”

Ralston says this program has huge social benefits—and doesn’t want to see those walled off.

“This small community here really has a chance to be a model of true acceptance because the kids who grew up here not only grew up with kids who spoke Spanish, but grew up learning that culture and learning that language,” Ralston says.

“The best part of being in the dual immersion program is that you can learn two languages,” says third-grader Sayre Jorgensen has been learning in two languages since kindergarten. “The worst part is that you have to do math in Spanish—and it’s harder to learn that way.”

Sayre’s dad, Mike Jorgensen, says he’s been thrilled with his daughter’s learning, but he’d be disappointed to see the dual immersion program moved to its own magnet school.

“The program within the normal setup of the elementary school has been great for everything else that comes with being a third-grade student,” says Jorgensen. “The social side, her friends that aren’t in the program. It keeps a level of normalcy, I think. So I guess just personally, I would prefer that didn’t occur.”

The Teton County School District says all parents and community members can weigh in. There’s a survey open on the district’s website and a public workshop at the district office on Monday, January 11 at 6:00pm. The school board will consider that input when it votes on the future of Jackson’s dual immersion program on Wednesday, January 13.