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Duval Dual Language Program Expands To Three Elementary Schools

Anneliese Delgado

The students of Maria Franco’s first grade class know how count by tens in Spanish and they can tell you the difference between fiction and nonfiction in Spanish and English.

West Riverside Elementary School is one of three Duval County Public Schools that offer a dual language program.  

The program was started 6 years ago at two schools, San Jose Elementary and Beauclerc Elementary.

This is the program's first year at West Riverside, but the students are already engaging and interacting during the lessons. 

“My husband and I think it’s really important to be bilingual,” said Suzanna Siebert, a parent of a second grader in the dual language program at San Jose Elementary. 

Even though there is an elementary school within walking distance of her house, Siebert drives more than 40 minutes so her daughter can attend the program. 

Seibert’s daughter already knew English and Portuguese before starting at San Jose, but the stay-at-home mom wanted to make sure her daughter didn’t forget Portuguese. 

“There isn’t a whole lot out there in Jacksonville, for people who are learning Portuguese," she said. "Once I learned about the program, I got real excited because I knew that it would help her. It would help maintain her Portuguese, as well.”

Teachers in the program don’t exclusively cover certain subjects in one language.  This means half the day, students are instructed in Spanish and the other half in English.

About 500 students are currently enrolled. The program isn’t just teaching Spanish to native English speakers.  Half of the students are native Spanish speakers.   

“When it’s class in English, the English speakers are obviously the leaders, they are more proficient, said DCPS executive director of ESOL and World Languages, Christine Dahnke. “What’s great is when you go to the Spanish half of the day, the Spanish students feel the same way.”

“Students learn best when they learn in their native language first, and it benefits everyone to learn a second language,” Dahnke said, but not everyone agrees bilingual education is the best method of teaching. 

In years past, it was illegal to teach in any language except English in California, Arizona and Massachusetts. The laws have become more lenient to dual language education, but there is still some resistance, especially in Arizona. 

Dahnke thinks by banning dual language programs, states are putting American students at a disadvantage.

“Our kids are competing globally for jobs against people who will have multiple languages, even more than two,” she said.

Some parents who only speak English worry how they can help their children with homework in Spanish. A free program will soon be offered for parents who wish to become bilingual, as well.

Seibert wants her daughter to be proud of knowing more than one language. Even on the first day of kindergarten, her daughter came home speaking Spanish. 

“I’ve noticed now that she is in second grade, she is really into writing books,” Seibert said.  “I never know what language is going to be on the page.”

The oldest students in the program are now in 5th grade and most of them are proficient in both languages.  At the end of the month, teachers, principals and parents will meet to decide how to continue the program in middle school.

Supporters of the program hope to eventually expand dual language education to local preschools.