State grant aids school district to transition bilingual program

Winters Joint Unified School District office building (Crystal Apilado/Winters Express)

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Winters Joint Unified School District was one of 27 districts out of 140 applicants to receive a Dual Language Immersion (DLI) grant from the state as part of the Global California 2030 initiative. This grant will provide funding for a 50:50 ratio of language in the classroom and a 90:10 DLI program with the goal of having half of the Kindergarten through 12 students speak two or more languages by 2030.

Assistant Superintendent Phoebe Girimonte and English Learner Specialist Delia Garcia-Espinoza presented the benefits of this proposed model and what this grant and the DLI program will mean for Winters students.

Garcia-Espinoza defined DLI by citing a 2001 study that says, “in Dual Immersion Programs, English-dominant and target-language-dominant students are purposefully integrated with the goals of developing bilingual skills, academic excellence, and positive cross-cultural and personal competency attitudes for both groups of students.”

Girimonte and Garcia-Espinoza expounded on the benefits researchers found amongst bilingual students, including improved scores on standardized testing and on cognitive skill assessments, as well as cultural and social benefits derived from being able to engage with people in other languages.

The current Developmental Bilingual Education (DBE) program, approved by Winters JUSD Trustees in 2013, has a 50:50 language allocation model. The transition to the DLI program is expected to be a three-year process.

Speaking on what the DLI program’s structure will look like, Garcia-Espinoza said the program will continue across Kindergarten through fifth grade with a cohort of students roughly organized by one-third English speakers, one-third Spanish speakers, and one-third dual English and Spanish speakers, and these students will have at least 50 percent of their school day spent in their target language. 

The program will begin in kindergarten, with the language curriculum designed so that time spent in the target language will be 90 percent Spanish to 10 percent English, and shifting each subsequent academic year from a ratio of 80:20 in first grade, 70:30 in second grade, and so on until finishing at 50:50 ratio fifth grade. 

When answering a question by Trustee Joedy Michael regarding the reasons behind the ratios, Girimonte said “we recognize that our students, even those who are enrolled in a DLI program, are going to have lots of exposure to English in other settings, so we do want to immerse them in that target language of Spanish,” so the goal of the program is to both, “buoy and sustain that home language, and also for our English only students in the program, to build their fluency in Spanish as well,” which both require being immersed in the target language to fully achieve. 

Girimonte explained that 2022-23 will be a planning year for the district as it establishes the academic infrastructure for the program, including developing an evaluation plan and familiarizing the community with the DLI program. Next year, the school district will see the Kindergarten through the first-grade implementation of the program. The program will expand to include Kindergarten through second grade in the 2023-24 school year, with the goal of implementing it through fifth grade by the 2024-25 school year. 

Girimonte also assured community members that a forum will be held on Jan. 24 to provide families with additional information on the program and the transition from existing programs. Garcia-Espinoza later told the Express this task force will be working to “make the process as easy and as smooth as possible by being as transparent as possible with the community.”

Families with children in Transitional Kindergarten and Kindergarten will learn about both the traditional and DLI pathways during the annual family meetings in February.

Some current challenges include staffing, with Girimonte noting during the meeting that “a real priority of our work is going to have to be (the) recruitment of highly qualified staff, in particular teachers who hold their bilingual certification.” 

Superintendent Rody Boonchuoy bookended the presentation telling the Board “there is enormous opportunity in the launch of this work, it truly is grounded in the research,” noting his experience in his previous districts with similar programs that were successful, while also acknowledging the likely challenges of maintaining the one-third ratio as well as balancing the interest in the program within the community.

Speaking to the future, Girimonte and Garcia-Espinoza noted that the current DLI plans remain just for elementary school students, as staffing issues are compounded with higher levels. Garcia-Espinoza agreed that it would take “a few years to get to that level,” but added that the district is already working to analyze and evaluate “how all the pieces fit in place by the time this cohort reaches middle school to provide the best educational program possible.”

Girimonte concluded by reiterating the excitement she, the Trustees and Superintendent Boonchuoy expressed about this program during the meeting.

“This transition is about valuing and sustaining and honoring biliteracy and bilingualism among our students and for our families,” Girimonte said. “And recognizing that we are a bilingual, bicultural community and we have such an opportunity to reinforce and sustain and respect (the) home language and promote bilingualism as our students move through the school system and into adulthood.”

The program transition was introduced as an informational item a the Dec. 15 Board of Trustees meeting.

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