Five Paradise Valley Elementary school students stood in front of a packed room Monday night and held a conversation in Mandarin.
What’s your favorite thing about learning the language, one little girl asked another.
In unbroken Mandarin, the friend responded: “I like learning Chinese so I can talk Chinese and my parents don’t know what I say.”
The first girl translated her answer to the crowd, which burst out laughing.
Normally, Natrona County school board meetings are almost entirely school district staff, plus a couple of reporters and the occasional parent. Laughter is minimal. Beyond the discussion at the table, the room is quiet, to the point where computer keystrokes are audible.
But Monday night, the meeting room was nearly overflowing with parents, students, teachers and principals from Paradise Valley and Park elementary schools. Extra chairs, usually left stacked and unused against the wall, were hastily set up as more people filed in. Still, many stood in the back and along the walls.
They’d come to cheer the district’s dual-language immersion program, which was introduced almost four years ago. Paradise Valley started a Chinese program in 2013, and Park followed the next year with Spanish. It was a scheduled update to the board where parents, teachers and district staff reported the programs have been successful. They urged the board to continue supporting the program.
Students in the schools spend half their day learning in English and half learning in Spanish or Chinese.
From the beginning, parents have led the charge to bring dual-language immersion, or DLI, to Natrona County. They formed a task force and gauged community interest. Judging by their testimony Monday night, parent enthusiasm has not dampened.
“I’m so excited for the opportunity my daughter has to learn Spanish,” Park parent Frank Korfanta told the board. “She has just grown immensely. Her language skills, her vocabulary. ... From a futures perspective, the opportunities that a dual, bilingual person will have in the employment market will just be expanded exponentially.”
Parent Natalie Smith said DLI has given students the chance to see beyond the boundaries of this small city in the least populous state in the country.
“When I grew up, my world was where I lived, with my friends,” she said. “This opportunity has expanded their world.”
Paradise Valley has 185 students in its Chinese program, and Park has 101 for Spanish. DLI is offered for kindergarteners through fourth-graders.
The program doesn’t only help students learn new languages. District data indicates that DLI students typically show higher growth than their peers in traditional schools over the academic year.
“From a program evaluation standpoint, those are good initial findings,” said Charlotte Gilbar, the district’s director for research and assessment.
Asked by the board if they’d thought about expanding the program, officials said it was too early to begin thinking about spreading it to middle schools.
But the program appears to be working for the students who are enrolled in it. Before the small group of Chinese-language learners spoke, nine Park Elementary kids stood in front of the crowd, with their backs to the board members. They were arranged by grade level, so they looked like a human staircase.
Park’s two Spanish instructors, Erendira Garcia and Saul Rodriguez, stood on either end of the group and peppered the students with questions. All were able to answer, though some were more capable than others.
Garcia asked the students what they liked to do when they weren’t in school (and when their homework was finished). Basketball, one little boy said. Soccer, another piped up. Then, the winning response:
“Me gusta dormir y ver el television,” one of the older students said. “Porque quiero hacer nada.”
Translation: I like to sleep and watch TV because I want to do nothing.
After the presentation, when the board had moved onto drier subjects and the audience had thinned down to the usual suspects, the members were still chuckling.
“That was her favorite thing,” said Dana Howie, laughing.
The trustees also praised the program and were pleased with how the community has taken to it. Board member Clark Jensen noted that in many countries, learning multiple languages is part of the curriculum. He praised the board’s decision years ago to approve the program.
On top of that, he said, it’s good to have a break from the heavy cloud that lately seems to hang over education in Wyoming.
“Sometimes it seems like we’re only dealing with putting out fires,” Jensen said, “so it’s nice to have a celebration.”