Signs and announcements written in Spanish line the halls in the Bijou Community School. A third-grade class down the hall learns the story of Mulan, all in Spanish, while one of the kindergarten cohorts works on a class assignment, no English allowed.
It's all part of the Two-Way Language Immersion program and, for a school that didn't even teach Spanish seven years ago, it's quite the transformation.
"We didn't teach the kids Spanish. We gave support to the English learners, but it was all about teaching them English. (Two-Way Immersion) has changed the nature of Bijou in a very positive way," Bijou Principal Karen Gillis-Tinlin said.
Now 220 of the the 541 students enrolled in the elementary school participate in the TWI program, and Gillis-Tinlin said she anticipates that number will keep growing. In total, there are 11 TWI classes for the 2012-12 school year, including three new kindergarten cohorts.
TWI puts English learners and English speakers in the same classroom to promote biliteracy. In Bijou's case, classes are split about 50/50 between English and Spanish speakers and usually have about 20 students. Teachers start kindergarteners off with a 90/10 curriculum - 90 percent in Spanish, 10 percent in English.
"They didn't know any different so they just embraced it. The power in it is that a little boy with a Spanish-speaking background gets to translate for the other students. In the beginning, when the kids are being spoken to in Spanish and they don't understand, they have to use their critical thinking," Anita Castles said.
Castles, who speaks Spanish and English fluently, enrolled her children - now in kindergarten and third grade - in the program to learn about diversity and cultural difference. Learning a new language at such a young age helps develop more than just a child's linguistic skills, she said.
Bijou fifth-grade teacher Terri Houser agrees that TWI helps promote other areas of cognitive development. A study conducted by Ellen Bialystok and published in an issue of Child Development journal found that bilingual children develop control, or selective attention, earlier than children who speak only one language.
"Language is like taking music lessons. It's not just learning about music. You're learning to switch between your right brain and your left brain with ease," Houser said.
Houser's fifth-graders are almost all either intermediate to low-advanced in their second language. When they reach this final year of the elementary school program, students are learning on an even playing field. Half the curriculum is in Spanish and half of it is in English.
Houser, who taught a bilingual program in the Los Angeles Unified School District before moving to South Lake Tahoe, said the main difference between TWI and a traditional biliteracy curriculum is that the later doesn't include English speakers or Spanish instruction.
Fiona Ritchie, 10, has been in the Bijou TWI program since third grade. Now that she's in fifth grade, she said she thinks overall it has helped her education.
"I think it's been pretty productive. It will help us get better futures. On the playground you can hear all these kids running around speaking Spanish really quickly. And I'm like, 'Wow, this is so advanced,'" Ritchie said.
TWI is an intensive program, and the student-to-teacher ratio matters. To keep the class small and continue the program's growth requires two new bilingual teachers a year, making staffing a challenge, Gillis-Tinlin said.
The 20 students per teacher is just not a ratio that's being supported by the state right now, Houser said. According to Houser, who left her position at South Tahoe Middle School to work at Bijou, some of her colleagues are dealing with almost double that amount of students in the middle school.
Staffing considerations will play a role in determining TWI's future at the middle school, and though Gillis-Tinlin said she hopes there will be at least one class in Spanish, there's no plan on the table at the moment. As a parent, Castles said she hopes that the resources put into the elementary school program don't go to waste, and the school finds a way to start TWI at the next level.
"My hope would be if they're committing all this time to a program, they would put the resources in to move it forward," she said.
In other news
As classes approach the end of September, both South Tahoe and Whittell high schools get ready to officially welcome the student body to campus with homecoming celebrations. WHS's homecoming week starts on Sept. 24, with the dance in the commons wrapping up the party on Sept. 29. STHS will hold its parade and dance a week earlier on Sept. 22.
Jack Coolbaugh, the new STHS student representative for the school board meetings, announced this year's homecoming theme - movie genres - at last week's board meeting, and talked about the role of the new student union building on campus during the 12:37 lunch hour.
The high school's aren't just welcoming students back into the fold. This Thursday, the STHS Fall Term Welcome will take place at 5 p.m. in the student union. On Wednesday, Sept. 19, STHS faculty invite parents to a 3 p.m. school site council meeting at the union to discuss anything education-related.
Senior Parent Night at WHS will be held Sept. 26, followed the next day by the School Safety Task Force at 3:30 p.m.
Construction on various Measure G projects nears completion in LTUSD, which served 3,823 youth as of September 2012. If that number - up by 73 students from last year - holds, it could mean an additional $350,000 in funding.
Funding will be a topic during the Sept. 25 special board meeting at 4 p.m. to discuss final facility improvements and funding for the STHS women's softball field.
It's not just high schoolers who are hard at work. South Tahoe Middle School continues with its three-pronged approach to improving student performance, with advisory classes, grade recovery time and incentives for students with grades higher than 70 percent.
Zephyr Cove Elementary School student grades three to six will submit essays to prove themselves worthy of holding office on the Student Council, and nominated students will give speeches to the student body on Oct. 2.
Walk to raise money at Bijou Community School's Walk-a-Thon at 9:15 a.m. this Friday.
For elementary and middle school students, the deadline for the California Department of Boating and Waterways 20th annual Safe and Wise Water Ways poster contest is Oct. 19. More information about the competition can be found at www.dbw.ca.gov/PosterContest.
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