At Congress Park School in Brookfield many kindergarteners and first graders spend half their school day learning in Spanish and the other half learning in English.

Last year Congress Park School started a dual language immersion program in kindergarten. Now those kindergartners are in first grade. Each year the dual language program will be expanded a grade until it is offered through sixth grade.

The kindergarten and first grade students in the program each have two teachers: one who teaches entirely in Spanish and another who teaches entirely in English.

The idea to have a dual language program at Congress Park originated in a visioning session three years ago and is intended to boost student achievement at LaGrange District 102’s most ethnically diverse school. Test scores at Congress Park are the lowest in District 102 with only 51 percent rated by the state as prepared for the next level compared to 59.6 percent at the district’s next lowest performing school. 

“It came out of our community visioning sessions we had three years ago and looking at ways to increase student achievement,” said District 102 Superintendent Kyle Schumacher.

Congress Park students are almost evenly split between white (42.5 percent) and Hispanic (41.8 percent) students according to the Illinois School Report Card. Eleven percent of Congress Park students are labeled as English learners meaning that English is not their primary language at home.

All students whose primary language at home is not English are enrolled in the dual language program and other students in the program are voluntarily enrolled by their parents.

“We’re accepting anybody who is interested in the program,” said first year Congress Park Principal James Robinette who was the principal of a K-8 dual language immersion school in Rockford last year.

Two of the three sections of kindergarten and first grade at Congress Park are in the dual language immersion program. The other section is taught entirely in English.

Twenty-nine first graders are enrolled in the immersion program. All but three of them were in the dual language kindergarten class last year. The three who were not in the dual language kindergarten class last year took a dual language immersion summer school program.

The dual language first graders are split into two classes: one with 15 students and the other with 14.

In the morning the one group will be taught entirely in Spanish by teacher Jessica Valverde, for whom Spanish was her first language, and the other group will be taught in English by teacher Sydni Dames, who does not know Spanish. Then in the afternoon the two groups will switch classrooms and teachers and learn in the other language.

While there are eight kindergarten students at Congress Park whose primary language is Spanish there are only two first graders who speak mostly Spanish at home. 

First grader Braelynn Wallace said that she likes learning in two languages.

“I like that I can learn different languages,” said Wallace who speaks both English and Spanish at home. 

Wallace said that she prefers English. Why?

“Because it’s easier,” Wallace said.

Learning in two languages has multiple benefits Schumacher and Robinette say. They point to research that shows that students who are fluent in two or more languages perform better academically, have more flexible brains, and are more culturally literate.

“They think differently, they make connections differently, different subjects like math where you have to make connections and stuff starts to become easier for them,” Robinette said. “I wish that I went through a dual language program when I was growing up.”

School officials also hope that learning for half the day in Spanish will help students whose first language is Spanish.

“We need to learn English while we’re here, but we learn English better, our second language learners learn English better, if they know their first language well,” Schumacher said.

Native Spanish speakers benefit by learning content in their first language while improving their English.  

“A benefit for a Spanish speaker is that they get to keep their heritage,” Robinette said. “They get to keep their natural born language and it really helps them know who they are.”

All students in the program will benefit by being bilingual and bicultural school officials say.

Valverde and Dames, both young energetic teachers, work together closely and communicate constantly. They are friends who talk to each other a lot. Over the summer they attended a conference in Chicago to learn how to teach most effectively in a dual language program.

They do not repeat identical lessons but they reinforce concepts taught in the other language.

“I do the lessons in Spanish and then Sydni does the lessons in English but she does it through a bridge,” Valverde said. “We’re not teaching the exact same thing, but we’re bridging and kind of just elaborating more on that standard.”

Valverde and Spanish language kindergarten teacher Maria Ibarra-Lorence use the Total Physical Response (TPR) method of teaching a second language. In this method the teacher uses gestures and body movement to help students understand the words she is teaching them.

Valverde is particularly physically expressive in the classroom waving her arms and moving her body while helping her first graders understand and use Spanish words. Her classroom is full of movement and expression.

For now, there are no plans to expand the dual language immersion program to other schools in the district.

“We want to be able to focus our attention right now on this program and then as we’re able to replicate that we certainly have interest from some of the parents in some of the other schools,” Schumacher said.