Immersion program showing success in first year

Christine Stephenson/The Herald
Huntingburg Elementary teacher Carmen Brooks helps kindergartner Santiago Calderon with an activity involving organizing jelly beans. Brooks is the Spanish teacher for the school's dual language immersion program, which allows students to spend half their day learning in English and half in Spanish.


HUNTINGBURG — Carmen Brooks stood at the front of the classroom as her students filtered back in from another class. Some leisurely wandered in, chatting with their classmates or grabbing water bottles from their cubbies, while some darted straight to their seats when they realized a treat was sitting on each desk — jelly beans.

“OK, niños,” Brooks said to her Huntingburg Elementary kindergartners to grab their attention.

The desks were set so that the students could spend the class playing a game in Spanish involving organizing the jelly beans, or "frijolitos," according to color.

“Put your books in your backpacks and sit in your seats, please,” Brooks instructed in Spanish. “If you want to eat the jelly beans, listen to me.”

Brooks is a teacher involved with Southwest Dubois County School Corporation’s dual language immersion program. Her colleague, English teacher Amy Kaetzel, and she are completing their first year of the program, which teaches multiple subjects in English and Spanish. By the time students in the program graduate, they will be fluent in both English and Spanish.

Southwest Dubois’ program is the newest of more than 20 dual language immersion programs in the state but the only one in Southern Indiana. The next closest dual immersion program involving English and Spanish is in Bloomington, said Tonya Schepers, English Language Learners director for the Southwest Dubois school district.

The program follows a 50-50 model, with 50% of students coming from native English-speaking families and 50% coming from native Spanish-speaking families.

As someone who originally taught high school students and the only Spanish teacher at Huntingburg Elementary, Brooks said the first year of the program has been a learning process, but a successful one.

“In general, the kids seem really excited about it,” she said. “I hear the non-native speakers using a lot more Spanish now. And it seems like the parents seem pretty happy with it, too.”

In a typical classroom setting, students will only dedicate an hour or so a day to learning a new language, and many schools don’t offer foreign language programs until the high school level. With this program, the students are starting the process at a much younger age and spending at least half of the day learning in Spanish.

“That language-learning center in your brain is much more resilient right now than, you know, even when you get to be in high school,” Schepers said. “So starting them now and giving them this skill before they even get to that point is such a great opportunity for them, because then the more languages you know and the more you’re exposed to, the easier it becomes later on to gain more.”

Kaetzel, who has been teaching kindergarten for almost a decade now, said she hasn’t seen the integration of Spanish hinder the students’ comprehension skills or cause them to fall behind in any way.

“I think they’re even more flexible than we give them credit for,” she said.

In addition to acquiring language skills that will set them apart in the workforce, the students are also using the program to learn more about different cultures and each other.

Brooks said she often sees native Spanish-speaking students helping the native English-speaking students with their Spanish. It’s nice for them to have the advantage with language sometimes, she said, because they don’t typically get that opportunity in other classroom settings. The program also allows the native Spanish-speaking students to see parts of their culture being celebrated and validated.

“It’s fun to see them get excited when we talk about something like tamales, like a food that a lot of the students say they eat at home with their families,” Brooks said.

In future years, Brooks said she hopes to have more hands-on lessons and activities inviting parents into the classroom, which has been difficult during the pandemic.

Additionally, corporation staff plans to expand the program so that each year, another grade level will be added to ensure that students can stay in the program as they progress through elementary school. Ideally, the students will be able to stick with the program through fifth grade.

The program’s incoming kindergarten class is already filled up, Schepers said.

“We’re still kind of figuring things out as we go,” she said, “but we’re really excited for how this program is going to look down the line.”

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