MONROE — The children sat in a circle during their kindergarten class at Frank Wagner Elementary School, explaining what they did over the weekend.
They were speaking Spanish, a native language for only about half of the two dozen boys and girls in the room.
Six-year-old Lily Moore spoke mostly in Spanish. She is proud of how much of the language she has learned.
“I can count up to seven in Spanish, and I know all the letters,” she said.
Lily is one of 48 children at the school pioneering a new type of bilingual education program in the Monroe School District. The goal is simple: All students will learn to read, write and speak in English and Spanish up to the fifth grade. Classes in math, social sciences and science will be taught in both languages.
Monroe offers different programs to help students learn English but was looking for a program that benefited English speakers, as well. So far, parents praise the program because they want their children to learn a second language at an early age.
Studies suggest students in dual-language programs do better academically than their peers in single-language classes. The only known drawback: There are not enough teachers qualified to teach in a second language.
“The research about (being bilingual) shows that knowing two languages early in life expands a certain part of the brain,” district spokeswoman Rosemary O’Neil said. “And students who speak two languages do better with problem-solving, thinking more creatively and do better on scholastic tests of any kind: local, state and national.”
Monroe’s dual-language program is the only one in the county. Arlington discontinued its program at Eagle Creek Elementary after only a few years, because, a district official said, not enough English-speaking families were enrolling.
Monroe spent about five years researching dual-language programs. Teachers and staff visited schools in the Northshore and Mount Vernon school districts to learn more, O’Neil said.
The district wanted to create another program, in addition to the traditional programs it already has, to help the non-English-speaking students. The district has about 500 students enrolled in an English as a Second Language program.
There are 23 languages besides English and Spanish spoken among students in Monroe schools. Spanish is the second most common language in the district, and Frank Wagner was chosen because it has the largest Hispanic student population, O’Neil said.
The program started this year, when the district received state funding. There is no additional expense by the district or the parents. The program accepted 50 students — 25 who speak English and 25 who speak Spanish as their first language. So far, two students have left the program because they moved away from the district.
Next year, the students will continue the program in first grade while a new kindergarten class will start for the next school year. This will continue until fifth grade.
A few months after starting in the program, 6-year-old Dylan Weekley was working hard to learn Spanish. He practiced his numbers while counting spaces playing board games, said his father, Eric Weekley, 36.
He speaks short phrases in each language.
The program also sparked Dylan’s interest in learning, Weekley said.
“It is exciting for him now. Before, (the Spanish lessons) were overwhelming,” Weekley said. “I’m very happy with the program. It is very beneficial for him.”
He believes that knowing Spanish will help Dylan and his classmates get jobs in the future.
Spanish-speaking parents, meanwhile, said the class helps their children to preserve their first language as they learn English.
Roxana Mendez, 30, has seen her nephews lose their ability to speak Spanish. She taught her 8-year-old son Spanish. She also wanted her 6-year-old son, Christian Navarrete, to speak both languages.
This way, Christian could communicate with his Mexican family and even help them in the future as their interpreter, she said. He can now write in both languages.
“He recognizes all the sounds. I consider him as being bilingual,” Mendez said.
Students are divided into two groups, with half the group speaking English and the other Spanish. After lunch, they switch to speak the other language.
“This way, they are learning from each other,” Frank Wagner Principal Robin Fitch said.
So far, the students are learning at a quick pace. In late January, they were already writing and reading sentences in two languages, Fitch said, a goal they weren’t expected to reach until closer to the end of the school year.
Right now, the main challenge is to find qualified teachers for future years, but Fitch has already received a call from a teacher in Texas interested in applying for a position, she said.
Another goal is to integrate the Hispanic community with the rest of the Monroe community. To help Hispanic parents become more involved and to know more about what the children are learning in class, Frank Wagner hosts monthly family nights where the students do crafts, sing and eat treats.
Bilingual education started in the 1960s in Florida when exiled Cubans wanted their children to retain their Spanish while learning English, said Virginia Collier, emeritus professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. She, alongside colleague Wayne Thomas, has researched bilingual education since 1985 by checking test scores and interviewing parents and staff.
At their last study, they analyzed the test scores of 210,054 students from five school districts in the country, including one in Oregon, from 1996 to 2001.
They found that Spanish-speaking children in bilingual programs did better than their peers who were in ESL classes or did not receive any language help. They also found that English-speaking students enrolled in bilingual courses did better in school than students in one-language courses.
“In some cases, they are one grade ahead,” Collier said. “It could be any student. We are even finding that students with special needs who are in bilingual education are doing better.”
Dual-language programs have support from U.S. English, a national nonprofit organization that advocates English as the nation’s official language.
The organization favors English immersion programs, but its own research suggests dual-language courses teach English faster and do not harm native language speakers, spokeswoman Karin Davenport said.
“We believe that any program should be focused on getting all students proficient in English as quickly as possible,” she said.
In recent years, the number of dual-language programs has increased in Washington state. There are 22 districts in the state that have at least one of these programs in their schools, according to a survey by the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and the University of Washington.
The need for these programs will increase because there will be more people speaking languages besides English, said Michael Shapiro, board member of the Washington Association for Bilingual Education, a nonprofit advocacy group.
“By 2023, 51 percent of the population under 19 years of age will speak another language besides English in the nation according to census projections,” Shapiro said. “In Washington state, it will be a little bit higher.”
The first dual-language program in the state started two decades ago, but most programs have started within the past 10 years, he said. Bellevue offers a program in English and Mandarin. And Highline, in Burien, next fall will start a program in English and Vietnamese.
Globalization will require that the future work force know how to write, read and speak in more than one language.
“These days you could see a help-wanted ad saying ‘bilingual preferred,’ ” Shapiro said. “At a certain point, it will say ‘biliterate required.’ “