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Petaluma’s McDowell Elementary debuts new program that teaches students in dual languages

The first dual immersion program in the Petaluma City School District, and the second of its kind in the city , opened to students Tuesday as the school’s teachers and administrators look forward to a new and diverse era of learning.

McDowell Elementary School, which opened in 1958 at 421 S. McDowell Blvd. , is now offering curriculum in two simultaneous languages — English and Spanish — for students starting in kindergarten through second grade, alongside its traditional English-speaking K-6 classes.

“I hope (the program) will open (students’) eyes to the richness of the people around them, that they will learn to value and appreciate the culture, and being able to have a common language to connect all of the students,” McDowell Elementary Principal Ruth Miller said Tuesday.

Miller comes to McDowell this year after nine years of teaching at the Loma Vista Immersion Academy — the first dual immersion school in Petaluma that opened in 2009 — so she can serve residents closer to her own neighborhood.

A quarter of the school’s student body, or 64 students, is currently enrolled in the program, according to Miller.

Dual immersion allows students to gain literacy skills in a language other than their native tongue, being taught across all curriculum. At McDowell, students at the kindergarten level will begin classes instructed in 90% Spanish and 10% English. In first grade, 80% of the curriculum is taught in Spanish, and the amount of English-speaking in the curriculum increases by 10% each year they advance. By fifth grade, students will be equally taught in both languages.

The McDowell Elementary dual immersion program was originally going to open solely to kindergartners, but school leaders received so much support and positive feedback from the community that they decided to extend it to second grade.

Petaluma City Schools Superintendent Matthew Harris, who led the effort to jump-start the new program, is a former dual language immersion teacher and for a longtime had envisioned bringing more of the teaching style to Petaluma.

“My family is doubly excited by the program as my two sons started their first day today in the program,” Harris said Tuesday .

Students not in the program will still have the option to take Spanish language classes as an elective.

“We have already begun conversations with the world languages department at Casa Grande to ensure the (dual immersion) program has a clearly articulated pathway into high school,” Harris said.

McKenzie Anderson, a kindergarten teacher in the program, was the first teacher hired in dual immersion learning at McDowell. Anderson taught for two years at Loma Vista, where she thought she would spend her entire career.

“This was some far-off, fantasy dream for me, to get to (help) start a program like this, in a community that I love so much,” Anderson said Monday , adding that she went to a dual immersion school when growing up, and minored in Spanish in college. “So when the opportunity presented itself, of course I applied, I had to.”

This year, Anderson will teach 28 students in her class, and aims to incorporate standards of Universal Design for Learning, which is a teaching approach that works to accommodate the needs and abilities of all learners, as well as play-based learning so students can learn in an “organic way,” rather than being fully directed by formal instruction , she said.

“I hope they love learning, ultimately, more than anything,” she said. “Beyond that, I want them to understand that there are so many different cultures in the world and have an appreciation for them, and be able to really be critical thinkers and incorporate themselves and others into whatever future community they find themselves in.”

Currently the majority of the students in the dual immersion program are native Spanish speakers, with 70% entering with Spanish as their first language and 30% being native English speakers.

Colors of Spanish, an organization founded in Petaluma in 2004, is entering into a partnership with the school to provide music, movement and interactive activities programs to help the students, as well as teachers, incorporate the Spanish language while also getting in touch with their artistic side.

“They can extend their imagination with their vocabulary,” said Guadalupe Tausch, director and founder of Colors of Spanish. “(Our program is) not only bringing songs, but through melody and rhythm students can develop skills and (language) structure.”

Aside from Colors of Spanish, other organizations and agencies credited with supporting the program and the students’ families include the Redwood Empire Food Bank, the Mentor Me program, the Petaluma Adult School, the Boys and Girls Club and the Petaluma Police Department’s SAFE community outreach team.

“I’ve had so many parents who are so excited to have me here as a principal who can speak their language,” Miller said. “I’ve had many meetings with parents as they drop their kids off and they are so excited that they don’t need to go find a translator or have their child translate.

“It creates an instant bond. Now they know they can come and be heard.”

Amelia Parreira is a staff writer for the Argus-Courier. She can be reached at amelia.parreira@arguscourier.com or 707-521-5208.

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