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Sharing language and culture


At first, the kindergarten classroom at Miwok Valley Elementary sounded like any other — a happy jumble of noise.

Voices murmured to each other and some feet thumped restlessly as the children practiced their writing, but one thing stood out from the typical classroom: The writing was in Spanish.

The children were in a dual immersion class, where about half the students are native English speakers and the other half native Spanish speakers. The goal is for the kids to become fluent in each others' languages and gain an understanding of the other culture, all while mastering the usual academics.

The program is the only one of its kind in Petaluma. It started three years ago at Bernard Eldredge Elementary, driven by a committed group of parents who wanted their children to be bilingual. It moved to Miwok Valley two years ago when Bernard Eldredge closed.

Now it's grown from a single kindergarten class to two kindergarten classes, a first-second grade class, and a second-third grade class. And, despite schools facing more potential budget cuts next year, Miwok Valley is expecting to fill two more dual immersion classes next year.

Miwok's dual immersion program has become a bit of a magnet for the school. Since there are only a couple other programs like it in the county, families come from other school districts in Petaluma and even from Novato and Rohnert Park, says Miwok Valley Principal Kim Harper. This brings additional money to the Old Adobe Union School District of which Miwok is a part.

Now, as kindergarten registration gets underway for the 2012-13 school year, a new batch of parents are considering the program. Because dual immersion is still a new concept for many parents, a group of mothers -including some of those who helped start the program - are reaching out to new families, holding coffee chats at a local Starbucks.

Last Thursday, Adrian Odom sat at the Starbucks across from Tia Spear and Jubal Garcia, who both have children in the program. Odom was considering kindergarten options for her young son and came to learn more about dual immersion.

Odom said her curiosity was piqued when she was looking at all the offerings in Petaluma and dual immersion stood out as unique from the other options.

"Adding a second language when your child is at their prime for learning sounds like such a cool advantage to give them," she said.

But she hadn't decided whether or not to enroll her son in the program. She said many of her concerns about the program were the same as for any other program: How much attention will her son have? Will his individual needs be met?

But, like other parents considering dual immersion, she also worried that learning other subjects might be compromised for the sake of learning Spanish.

"I want him to get a good education while he is there, not just walk away speaking another language," she said.

Spear, one of the mothers who helped start the program, responded to that concern:

"It's the normal curriculum that all kindergarten children learn," she said, explaining that kids acquire their Spanish through learning the other subjects.

In addition to talking to potential families, some of the mothers have created a support group for the program. They help, for instance, when parents who don't speak much Spanish have trouble understanding their children's homework.

The program is also designed for the kids to help each other with the language. This Monday, Harper was giving a tour of the program. A quiet girl with a head of curly blonde hair came up to show off her writing.

"Mi papa es cari?so," she read softly. But when Harper asked her what cari?so meant, the girl wasn't sure. She asked the teacher, who responded in Spanish. The girl, still looking confused, turned to a classmate, who told her in English what the word meant: "kind."

The teacher nodded in confirmation and the girl, grinning, scampered back to the principal to show off the new word she'd learned.

(Contact Jamie Hansen at jamie.hansen@argus courier.com)