Dual Language Immersion program a magnet for Denair; first group of students now in sixth grade

The Denair Unified School District is proud of its Dual Language Immersion program, and why not? Now in its seventh year, the popular program teaches students in English and Spanish beginning in kindergarten. The first class of youngsters are now in sixth grade, which is a big deal for the district because it means the program – and, most importantly, the students – made a successful transition from Denair Elementary Charter Academy to Denair Middle School this year.

At Thursday night’s monthly DUSD board meeting, DMS Interim Principal Gabriela Sarmiento and one of her DLI instructors updated trustees on what is happening in the program on their campus.

There are 23 sixth-graders in the program. One of them happens to be Sarmiento’s son, Victor, who also spoke to trustees Thursday night. Victor and his classmates receive 40% of their education in Spanish and 60% in English (there is a higher proportion of Spanish at the elementary grade levels).

The middle school students have three classes in Spanish – history (ancient civilizations this year), Spanish language arts (reading, listening, speaking, writing, grammar rules) and what is known as an “exploratory wheel class” (Spanish literature, Latin culture and more). Their English classes are math, science, English language arts and PE.

Sarmiento, who has a bilingual teaching certificate, was among the staff members who researched curriculum and visited middle schools in other districts to see how they teach students in English and Spanish. She also taught math and science in English to this year’s dual language sixth-graders until last month, when she became interim principal. In addition to learning another language, Sarmiento said there are many benefits to the DLI program.

“Obviously, the ability to read, speak, write fluently in two languages is important,” she said. “According to research, it increases a child’s cognitive ability for critical thinking. One of our goals is to also increase students’ appreciation for diverse cultures. Making students aware of that helps give them an overall appreciation for others.”

Earlier this month, the DLI students created an art exposition to celebrate Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a traditional Mexican holiday that honors family and friends who have died. In addition, their studies include culture and customs from 25 other Spanish-speaking countries. The students also have produced fun videos in English and Spanish talking about the program, five of which were played for trustees Thursday night.

Sarmiento said her son is proud to be bilingual and be part of the first DLI class at each grade level. In response to a trustee’s question, Victor said: “I wouldn’t change a thing about the program. I like it just the way it is.”

One of the goals, Sarmiento told trustees, is that DLI students will qualify for the Seal of Bilingual Literacy on their high school diploma, signifying that they truly are proficient in two languages. The seal can be an asset when applying for college or seeking a job.

Superintendent Terry Metzger said the DLI program has become a magnet, attracting students from outside the district to Denair. Of the district’s 1,300 students, 187 from kindergarten through sixth grade are in the DLI program this year, she said. Denair will continue to add classes each year until the current crop of sixth-graders graduates from high school.

“Commonly cited benefits to bilingual education are increased cognitive development and improved memory, which almost always lead to better academic achievement,” Metzger said. “Research shows that students who participate in DLI programs are more keenly aware of how language works so picking up a third or fourth language is not uncommon.

“Participation in DLI programs also increases empathy, flexibility in thinking and social awareness. All of these things help our campuses be great places to work and learn, and they give students real skills for post-secondary success.”

In other action Thursday night, trustees:

  • Voted 5-0 to adopt of comprehensive facilities master plan, a long-range document that provides a road map for the district’s classroom and other building needs well into the future. The three-phase plan could cost as much as $35 million and includes upgrades on every campus — new ag and science facilities at Denair High School, science labs at DMS, replacement of long-term portable buildings, and five new TK and kindergarten classrooms and a staff restroom at DECA. It was created by Caldwell Flores Winters of Emeryville.
  • Unanimously passed a resolution allowing the board to meet virtually if the ongoing COVID pandemic makes meeting in person potentially unsafe.
  • Heard a short report about the state Educator Effectiveness Block Grant. The grant provides $399,790 to the district to support educator effectiveness and teacher training. The money will be split between DHS and DMS ($209,827), DECA ($140,558) and Denair Charter Academy ($49,405).
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