Nine years ago, a research committee with Greater Albany Public Schools made a recommendation: Create a dual language immersion program for students to become bilingual.

Younger children learn languages more quickly, so the thought was to start them out in kindergarten. The idea was to not only help native Spanish-speakers master English, but give native English-speakers a step up on a second language in an increasingly global world. 

The Albany School Board agreed, and the following year, a Spanish-English program began at South Shore Elementary School.

The program started small: just kindergarten and first grade, and only if parents wanted it. An English-only class remained an option.

But it grew over time, eventually leading South Shore to become an all-school dual immersion program and the district to expand offerings in Spanish, first to North Albany Middle School and then to South Albany High School.

Only a handful of those original 76 students are left. Some moved, some changed schools and some dropped out in favor of other electives once they reached middle school.

But a handful of the students who experienced that first South Shore class are now freshmen in a dual language immersion class at South Albany High School, and they say they plan to see it through to graduation.

"All of us really like to stick together," said Liliana Ochoa, who started at South Shore as a first-grader in the fall of 2009. "That class, it feels like home."

How it works

The dual language immersion program has added a class each year as the original students progress through the grade levels. It will expand to 10th grade next year as the South students become sophomores.

Right now, South Albany offers just one freshman dual-immersion class. It's a yearlong ninth grade history class that earns students half a credit each in both history and electives. (The situation is similar at North Albany Middle School, which offers language arts in Spanish as an elective at all three grade levels.)

Melissa Carrillo, the teacher and adviser for the South Albany program, said next year's freshmen also will take the history class and the sophomores will move to a Spanish language and literature class.

As juniors they can take Advanced Placement Spanish, which — depending on how they score on the AP test — is a necessary element of receiving the "Oregon Biliteracy Seal" on their diplomas, first made available in 2014. (The Corvallis School District was part of the pilot program that created the seal.)

As seniors they'll likely work on a "capstone" project that brings together various elements of their learning. That's still under development, Carrillo said.

Carrillo has just 15 students in her history class. Larger cohorts are coming, however: North Albany Middle School has two classes for its seventh- and eighth-graders and three for sixth grade.

"We anticipate having a lot more students in the next years," she said.

The increase means the need for more teachers. Greater Albany anticipates increasing the full time equivalent positions at the middle school program next year from 1.0 to 1.75, and South Albany's from 0.25 to 0.75. 

Program challenges

The staffing increase will take place assuming the right people can be found. Hiring has long been a challenge for dual immersion programs, mostly because people who can speak both Spanish and English and are also certified to teach core subjects are in short supply.

That's partly why South offers just the one class: Carrillo has the background and content vocabulary to teach history in Spanish, but not math or science.

Curriculum has been another challenge. Every program is different and teachers are still finding out about one another, Carrillo said, so many simply build their own class content. She's often in contact with Amanda Filloy Sharp, the Bilingual Seal Program coordinator for the Corvallis School District, and with resources at Oregon State University for ideas.

Districts have to make a financial commitment to keep things going. Direct costs for staffing and materials started at $46,155 in 2008-09, when Greater Albany Public Schools was still in the planning stages. Costs reached $217,356 this year, according to the district's business office. Next year's bill is estimated to be $340,000, all but $25,000 of that in personnel.

Perpetuating student interest can be another obstacle. Students who choose to remain in the program have to use up a schedule slot for an elective, which is why many quit in favor of music or art when they left elementary school. 

Those who stay will see the benefits, however, Carrillo stressed.

"I think it's really great," she said. "We're trying to make it a quality program. More than anything, I want kids to have a unique experience in their education." 

Freshman year is meant to set up the support for a successful high school experience, she continued. "They've put a lot of work into becoming proficient. ... We want them to leave here feeling really accomplished in that sense."

Students in Carrillo's class include both native English speakers as well as native Spanish speakers. Both groups say they see value in staying.

"I have younger siblings and they're all in the Spanish program too, and I think it'd be good to set a good example," said Jonathan Winnie, whose first language was English. 

Winnie said his parents felt the opportunity to learn Spanish would be good for his future, and he agrees. Without it, he said, "I think I wouldn't know anything about this language." 

Marlin Perez, 14, who was one of South Shore's original dual language first-graders, was born into a Spanish-speaking household but hadn't learned to read or write in that language. She said the dual language program taught her that, along with the English she wanted to learn for her future. 

Liliana Ochoa agreed, but said her experience was slightly different. Her father is from Mexico and her mother is not, and as soon as she enrolled in preschool, she began losing her Spanish.

"My parents wanted me to keep speaking Spanish, for jobs, and also to be able to talk to my family who only speak Spanish," she said. 

She plans to stay to gain her biliteracy seal, figuring it will be an advantage on college applications. 

"You know you only have four years left," noted classmate Kylie Sanchez. "So why quit now?"

How it started

The dual language program grew from a decision by the Albany School Board in 2008 to look for ways of better serving the district's native Spanish speakers.

The board commissioned a fact-finding panel that researched the idea for six months. Members found two-way immersion — in which both native Spanish and English speakers spend part of each day speaking and learning in both languages — has the best results for both short-term English absorption and long-term academic achievement.

The committee recommended the program start at South Shore because it already had bilingual teachers for both kindergarten and first grade, and because it was expecting three classes at each of those grade levels for the 2009-10 school year. That way, two of the classes could be paired to swap teacher time, and the third class could be an English-only option.

In fall 2009, the program began. Two kindergarten classrooms and one first-grade classroom participated, with all students present by parent request.

That inaugural year, first-graders stayed in one room and alternated languages depending on the day of the week. Kindergartners spoke Spanish in one classroom for part of the day, then switched to English in a separate classroom for the other part.

The program grew with the students, expanding in 2014 to add a class to each grade level at North Albany Middle School. South Shore eliminated its English-only option as of fall 2015.

It hasn't been smooth sailing. North Albany, which has had three different principals in the past three years, has struggled to find both staff and curriculum for its one-class Spanish elective.

South freshman Liliana Ochoa remembers both the elementary and middle school programs having "suffered from constantly changing teachers" and said some teachers were no benefit at all.

"They think because we were in the dual language, they expected that we already knew everything," she said. "They just sort of threw stuff at us and didn't really 'teach.'"

Even the South Albany program doesn't hit as hard on reading and writing as Ochoa would like. Carrillo, she said, sometimes "doesn't understand we need more help. She just gives us more assignments. We kinda need some more teaching of Spanish."

District officials have tried to respond. Scheduling limits and lack of staff make it problematic to have more than one dual language class at the secondary level.

At the elementary level, Principal Kraig Sproles joined the South Shore staff in 2015. He made changes to ensure students had practice with both languages every day.

Now, kindergartners stay in a self-contained classroom where they speak both English and Spanish. First and second grades make up three classrooms each: one that's self-contained, and two that swap places each day for their language experience.

Third, fourth and fifth grades practice their language arts skills each day in both Spanish and English, but math is English only and science might have some Spanish involved, depending on the teacher and the lesson. More intense language lessons, meant as either intervention or enrichment, are available for each grade level.

Sproles also made hiring both bilingual and bicultural teachers a priority. As of this year, each grade level has one bilingual teacher. Of the 34 special education assistants at the school, 26 are bilingual and 21 are of Hispanic heritage. All the office staff members are bilingual. (Sproles himself is not but says he's continuing to practice.)

In all, only about 40 percent of South Shore's staff is Hispanic. But it's still a larger percentage than the rest of the district, which averages lower than 10 percent, he said.

When the dual immersion program began, district report cards show, 24 percent of South Shore's 340 students spoke English as a second language. Even then, it had the largest percentage in the district.

By 2016-17, the school had gained more than 60 students and the percentage of English Language Learners had jumped to 54 percent, nearly double the population of any other district elementary school (About a quarter of the total number of elementary students in the district are English Language Learners, with most of them listing Spanish as their first language.)

"It's important for kids to see teachers who look like them," Sproles said. "If there's no one like you, it's really hard for you to envision how you could be that person, to envision how to see the value in what you're teaching them."

Effects so far

Eight years have passed since that first class at South Shore, but educators say it's still too soon to tell whether Albany's dual immersion program will boost test scores or improve biliteracy.

A 2002 study published in the National Association for Bilingual Education Journal of Research and Practice delved deep into achievement for students in two-way double immersion. The researchers found students in the English Language Learner category usually score poorly on standardized English tests as youngsters, but start to pull ahead of their peers by middle school. By graduation, they outperform even native English speakers.

A three-year study done in Portland schools for grades 3-8 backs those results. Researchers with the RAND Corp. found in 2015 that dual language immersion students outperformed their classmates on state assessment tests for language arts by almost a school year's worth by the end of middle school.

The Corvallis School District is following that trend so far. The district began a dual language program in 2001 at Garfield Elementary School and added one at Lincoln three years later. According to an April 2016 presentation to the Corvallis School Board, Corvallis dual language students who took the state's Smarter Balanced tests in both math and reading lagged behind their classmates in third and fifth grade but surpassed them in both eighth and 11th grades.

It will be four more years before the first state test scores come back for South Albany High School students — and even then, they will be impossible to compare to previous accomplishments because the state has ditched the Smarter Balanced tests for high school and hasn't yet chosen a replacement.

The district also can't compare middle school data yet, either, as it has just one year of scores from North Albany Middle School: 2016-17, when the South freshmen were eighth-graders.

That report shows that even though only 41.9 percent of North Albany's English Language Learners passed the state language arts test, the score topped both the state average and the like-school average, both 36 percent. (Math and science, at 17.4 and 34.6 percent respectively, were slightly lower than both the state and like-school averages.)

South Shore's state test scores appear to follow the low-achievement model predicted by the 2002 Thomas & Collier study. Last year's English Language Learner passing rate for language arts was just 21.9 percent and math was 15.6 percent, well below both state and like-school averages for ELL students in both subjects.

Assistant Superintendent Tonja Everest said that's not unexpected: The students are being asked to master two different types of "cognitive load" at the same time.

Native Spanish speakers who come into regular English-speaking schools have just the new language to master, she said. But dual immersion asks them to learn to read and write at grade level in both Spanish and English — something they don't necessarily know how to do even if they can speak one fluently.

Combine that effort with learning the academic content needed to pass the state's Smarter Balanced assessment and scores are almost bound to come in low, researchers found. And that test, as Sproles noted, is given only in English, which is taught at South Shore only about half the day.

But even though the scores have remained low, South Shore's ELL students have improved their marks each year for the past three years, he said.

"Typically when looking at our data, I try to compare our growth to other dual language schools around the state," he said. "We far outperform all the DL (dual language) schools in Woodburn, outperform the DL school in Eugene, about half of them in Forest Grove and are slightly below the two dual language schools in Corvallis."

The state tests are unable to measure some of the most important parts of a dual immersion program, Sproles added, such as the cultural and ethnic diversity the Spanish-speaking students bring to the school.

They also don't take into account the effort to help students leave South Shore with a solid foundation in both English and Spanish no matter which one they first learned at home. By fifth grade, he said, an English-speaking student may not yet be able to carry on a conversation in Mexico City, but he is usually reading Spanish at grade level.

South Albany's students say they don't necessarily feel fluent — "I can't imagine myself in the middle of Mexico," Ochoa said — but believe they're at least on their way.

"If you're bilingual, you have more opportunities. You can get a better job," said Briana Salas.

"And there are more jobs that are open," added Kamarie Buen. "And more colleges."

"It's good that they're trying to build it," Ochoa said, adding that she hopes the dual immersion program will be even more beneficial for students coming up behind.

"We were the first ones," she said. "We were the trial ones."