Leadership Team considers expanding WO’s bilingual program

Parents took deep breaths as they waited for the email to load. Being part of this program would set their young child apart from their peers. They quickly scan the list of names, searching for their own. Did they get in?

   The Spanish Immersion program at Lakeshore Elementary began in 2007. Participating students learn the regular curriculum in Spanish for at least half of each day. 

   Exposure to another language and culture from an early age equips students for success. Many parents see it as an exciting chance that will mean more job opportunities and higher salaries for their children. 

   Every year, the program accepts up to 28 students in Kindergarten. The district has a higher demand. Typically, 10-15 students are on a waitlist. It primarily serves native English speakers. 

   Concurrently, there is an immense amount of English language learners in West Ottawa. At WOPS, there are about 1000 English learners, students who have a native language other than English. The vast majority come from a Spanish language background, but students speak about 30 unique languages within WO.

   This year, a Dual Language Leadership Team has formed. Pam Schwallier, Ph.D., the director of EL & Bilingual programs for WO, is a key member. The group gathered feedback from stakeholders, defined the goals of the program, and reviewed the research. 

   They hope to expand the program by offering K-12 bilingual education. “Ultimately, our goal is to prepare students to be college, career, and life ready in two languages,” Schwallier said.    

   Ideally, the new program would comprise 50% English-dominant students and 50% Spanish-dominant students. Together, they will develop bilingualism & biliteracy, grade-level academic achievement (or beyond), and cross-cultural competence. 

  “I’m deeply committed to advancing equity & access, and I could not be more thrilled to know that we will be opening doors for both native Spanish speakers and native English speakers to learn & grow together with real-world connections,” Schwallier said. 

   They are still in the stages of brainstorming and receiving feedback, and they have not yet decided on the location of the new program. Riley Farms Elementary, set to open in Fall 2024, presents an opportunity for reconsidering school boundaries, current & future needs of the community, and the locations of specialized programs.

   “There have been no decisions, and the district is seeking the engagement of multiple stakeholders in these important conversations. With any changes, we are committed to equity and access for all our students and families,” Schwallier said. 

   Besides her position as director of EL & Bilingual programs, Schwallier is a mother to two children enrolled in Spanish Immersion. Her son Landon is in 4th grade and her daughter Avery is in 1st. 

   “I’m so thankful that my own kids have the opportunity to be in the Spanish Immersion program. I hope that their experience not only sets them on a path to bilingualism but also sparks a lifelong interest in global issues, cultures, and learning about and with others who may have differing life experiences than their own,” she said.

   Soph. Megan Blake has been in the Spanish Immersion program since kindergarten and would recommend it to others. “It has allowed me to learn a new language and given me insight on a different culture. It’s cool to be bilingual,” she said.

   The Spanish Immersion program would not be the same without the efforts of teachers who Schwallier commends. “They are truly committed and go above and beyond daily for our kids!” she said. 

   First-grade teacher Karina Nazario is excited about the program’s growth. “It has been amazing seeing my students being passionate and developing a love for learning Spanish. Exploring multiple languages in the classroom provides a foundation for cultural education and grows alongside classmates from a different cultural background. I am excited to see the program grow even more and develop into a Dual Language program,” she said. 

   Nayeli Venegas, a fifth-grade teacher, recognizes the value and advantage of bilingual education. “I personally love sharing my native language and culture with my students. I always tell my students that being bilingual is a ‘superpower,’ that they can touch so many people’s lives,” she said. 

   While many details about the program are still unknown, future students will benefit from the superpowers they gain through its implementation.