On a recent morning at Paxson Elementary School, kindergarten students listened while teacher Mikell Fox explained their next activity — in Spanish.
As Fox spoke, some students looked around the classroom, which is colorfully decorated with useful phrases in Spanish and labels for objects like the clock and the window. One student raised his hand to ask if he could get water. He asked in English.
“¿Puedo tomar agua?” Fox reminded him, not breaking the policy that she teach exclusively in Spanish.
Accustomed to speaking English, some of the kids don’t use the Spanish phrases, even if they know them. But when Fox finished giving instructions for their activity, which involved finding a book in Spanish from the class library and sitting down to search for and write down syllables, the students knew exactly what she’d said.
They scattered and returned to their seats with a book and a worksheet, and started sounding out the words.
This is the first year the school has taught through Spanish immersion for every grade level. Kindergarten through second-graders spend half of their day learning in Spanish, and third- through fifth-graders spend a third of their day immersed in the language.
Peter Halloran, who joined the school as principal last summer, said the results of this immersion are already encouraging. This January, Missoula County Public Schools used Star 360, an assessment tool for reading and math. Halloran gave his students the test in Spanish.
“The test is actually not designed for students who are learning a second language. It's designed for heritage speakers, native Spanish speakers,” Halloran said. “And yet, in spite of that, we have several students who are at grade level. Which is remarkable.”
Kindergartners generally have been exposed to English for five or six years by the time they come to Paxson and hear Spanish, Halloran said.
“So to see students who are at grade level in kindergarten and in other grade levels as well is really validating for what we think kids are capable of.”
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Unlike Spanish classes in high school or college, immersion doesn’t focus on teaching the structure and conjugations of a language. Instead, Spanish is the “avenue and the target language” in which classes about language arts and social studies are taught, Halloran said.
Originally from a town near El Paso, Texas, Halloran grew up in a similar state of immersion. Spanish was more common to hear than English, and when he played baseball, it was always the language his teammates spoke to each other and to the coach.
“Spanish was kind of the unofficial language and English was kind of the official language, and that's pretty common for that part of the country,” Halloran said.
In middle school, he decided to make an effort to learn the language as best he could. Throughout high school, his parents were part of a church group that drove into Mexico on the weekends to visit old people or isolated people who didn’t have much company. That experience furthered his drive to learn Spanish, he said.
“Language is a gateway to communication and I want to know people when I meet people, and I don't want to know them on a superficial level. I want to be able to connect,” Halloran said. “Doing home visits, getting to know people, there’s a distinct difference when you go into someone’s home or you go into someone’s country and you speak their language.”
Aside from making it easier to connect with people, it also has opened doors in his career, he said. And for young students, research shows there are behavioral and learning benefits — such as better attention, focus, impulse control, decision making — to knowing multiple languages.
Plus, it makes students think harder about instructions and following along.
“We just see it in terms of engagement. You cannot be moderately engaged in a classroom where you’re that challenged,” Halloran said.
In the second year of the program, students start volunteering to speak in Spanish more, feeling more comfortable with the language. Watching them adapt to such a sharp change in their environment, and continue doing well in school, is a testament to their potential.
“I think the whole statement of dual immersion is that we think students are capable of more than a lot of people want to give them credit for. Because we think, not only are they capable of being scientists and mathematicians and historians and readers and writers, but they can do all that while learning and using a second language.”