DECA Dual Language Immersion students demonstrate bilingual skills at school board meeting

The “cute” factor was on full display at Thursday night’s meeting of the Denair Unified School District Board of Trustees, where nearly two dozen elementary school students used their bilingual speaking skills to charm and impress an enthusiastic audience comprised of proud parents, grandparents, teachers and administrators.

The Denair Elementary Charter Academy students – spanning grades from kindergarten to fifth – entertained the more than 150 people in attendance by speaking mostly in Spanish but also in English. Their demonstration generated plenty of smiles, laughs and maybe even a few tears, and dozens of photos and videos were taken that no doubt will be shared with family and friends over the holidays.

But make no mistake. Thursday night was more than a fun one-time performance. All the students are part of DECA’s Dual Language Immersion (DLIs) program, which aspires to help the youngsters achieve biliteracy, bilingualism and cross-cultural competence. 

The board meeting was a chance for the DECA staff as well as the district to celebrate a serious and life-changing program that has been an attendance magnet for Denair Unified since it was launched in 2015. Since then, it has grown to include Denair Middle School, where the first group of DLI kindergarteners are now eighth-graders.

“By almost any measure, DLI has been a huge success for the district, but most especially for the students and their families. We are very proud to be able to offer this important program,” said Denair Superintendent Terry Metzger. 

DECA Principal Laura Cardenas said 184 of her campus’ 564 students are enrolled in the dual language program. Under the immersion strategy, kindergarteners are taught in 90% Spanish and 10% English. The ratios are adjusted each year until they are 50-50 in fourth and fifth grade. There are two DLI classes in kindergarten through third grade and one class each in fourth and fifth grade. The focus is on enabling the students to become proficient in reading, writing, listening and speaking in both languages.

Ten of Cardenas’ DLI instructors attended Thursday night’s meeting, but it was their students who clearly stole the show. One grade level at a time – from youngest to oldest – the children introduced themselves in Spanish and then answered questions, also in Spanish, posed by fifth-graders Nayeli Gutierrez and Daniel De La Cruz.

The kindergarteners talked about their first day of school. The first-graders described what they like best about their DLI class. The second-graders showed off projects they made to celebrate Dia de las Muertes (Day of the Dead), which occurred Nov. 1-2, and related what they learned about the cultural holiday. The third-graders talked about how they use their Spanish to support their studies as complex ideas become comprehensible in both languages. The fourth- and fifth-graders spoke about how being bilingual will influence the kind of career or profession they may choose in the future.

At the end of the presentation, there were whoops and cheers, and clearly impressed board members invited the students to the front of the room for a group photo.

“You guys did a really great job. I’m so excited,” praised Trustee Carmen Wilson.

Trustee Kathi-Dunham Filson also complimented the students, saying: “You are all amazing. This was a wonderful Christmas gift to us.”

In other action Thursday, trustees:

  • Approved the first interim budget report presented by Chief Business Official Daisy Swearingen. The report is a midyear update to the current fiscal year and a forecast for the next two fiscal years. Swearingen said enrollment is 1,272, 28 fewer students than a year ago. Most of that is due to fewer kindergarteners at DECA than expected. Average Daily Attendance districtwide, which is what state funding is based upon, is 93.2% — comparable to where it was at last year. By comparison, Swearingen said many districts in Stanislaus County are averaging at or below 90%. “Yes, we are not where we want to be when thinking about our individual sites, but it could be worse,” she said. For example, based on the current enrollment and ADA, she estimated the net loss in income to Denair Charter Academy at about $600,000 this year from what was projected at Budget adoption. Swearingen said schools are being proactive in addressing attendance concerns and have the opportunity to increase numbers between now and when final attendance reporting is due. 
  • Heard a mental health report from Denair’s school counselors and mental health clinicians who work with students and their families on academic as well as social/emotional needs. The presentation in English and Spanish included stories from parents about how the program has benefitted their children.
  • Discussed the possible timeframe to put a bond issue of as much as $22 million on the November 2024 election ballot. The bond – which would require 55% approval from voters – would help provide matching funds needed to qualify for state money to pay for future facilities needs across the district. Many steps must happen before trustees move ahead, including scheduling community meetings to explain the needs for the bonds. Trustees would have to make a decision by next spring in order to qualify for the November ballot. 
  • Voted to accept two more CalSHAPE Ventilation program grants – one worth $119,790 for HVAC upgrades at DECA and a second worth $52,230 for heating and air conditioning upgrades at Denair Charter Academy. Since October, the district has received more than $500,000 from the state to pay for HVAC work. “We are exploring every option to fund our facility needs,” said Metzger.
  • Approved a resolution of their intent to convey a property easement that would allow the Turlock Irrigation District to re-route a water main to a new subdivision being built west of the Denair High baseball field. If the board approves the deal at its January meeting, work would be completed by the end of February.
  • Unanimously elected Trustee Crystal Sousa to be the board president and Trustee Kathi Dunham-Filson to be clerk for the next year. Trustee Carmen Wilson was honored for serving as president the past year.
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