The kindergarten open houses at Withers Elementary are a chance for parents to sip some free coffee and learn about what the school offers. About three years ago, the turnout was so-so.

Today, these open houses are bustling, and the school has a waiting list for its kindergarten classes.

“We now get neighbors with toddlers and who are pregnant coming to these open houses already wanting to see what our school is about,” principal Anita Hardwick says. “That never happened before.

At Walnut Hill Elementary, attendance has also seen a big spike.

“Recently we’ve had parents from all over the city wanting to come to our school,” principal Tammie Brooks says.

The reason for the sudden boom? A new program at both of these schools teaches kids to be bilingual by mixing English and Spanish speakers in one class.

The program, called dual immersion, works though a buddy system: An English-speaking child is partnered with a Spanish-speaking child. The children work together throughout the school year. The idea is that children will pick up new language skills through this peer interaction.

“Each year, the number of English-speaking families opting in [to the dual immersion program] has doubled,” Hardwick says.
“The program has been a real draw for parents who have previously committed to private school.”

That’s especially significant in our neighborhood, where parents commonly opt for private education over their neighborhood school. But the dual immersion program seems to be turning the tide.

Case in point: Rob Pivnick is one neighborhood parent choosing public school. This fall, Pivnick is transferring his first-grade son from a private school to Withers so his son can take advantage of the program. And the plan is to eventually send his toddler to Withers as well.

“The bilingual program was the key selling point for us,” Pivnick says. “No other private schools are offering any Spanish programs like this — I wish they had something like this when I was a kid. I only speak English, so I’m kind of jealous.

“If you have two languages on your résumé, you have a definite leg up on the competition, especially in this state.”

Dallas ISD board trustee Edwin Flores says Pivnick has hit the nail on the head.

“Texas is 65 percent Hispanic, so if two equally-qualified candidates apply for a job, and one speaks Spanish and the other doesn’t, guess who is getting the job?” he says. “Bilingualism is the future of Texas.

“But aside from language, this program is also about exposing your kids to people who are different than them. We live in an increasingly multicultural country, and it’s important for kids to learn tolerance.

“It’s also about supporting your neighborhood school. When all the neighbors are sending their kids to the same school down the street, a community bond happens. You run into each other at the grocery store; your kids play on the same soccer teams.”

And that’s all in addition to the educational benefits, Brooks says.

“This raises kids’ cognitive skills, and it challenges them at a new level. It promotes social interaction, and unlike a traditional class, we’re teaching these kids a new language in an academic context.

“So for example, they’re not just learning Spanish vocabulary words — they’re learning social studies in Spanish, so there’s a big difference.”

Right now, the dual immersion program ends at fifth grade, but a group of parents are working to extend it through middle and high school at Marsh and W.T. White. Some subjects, such as math, are taught in English, and others, such as history, are taught in Spanish.
The dual immersion program is relatively new, only existing in Dallas ISD for three years. Dallas ISD is the only large urban district in the state, and one of the few in the country, to offer the program.

When the 2009-2010 school year starts, 21 DISD schools will be using the dual immersion program. Our neighborhood has the highest concentration of dual immersion schools in Dallas.

“Obviously, we have to have the right demographic to offer the program at a school,” Flores says. “And in this neighborhood, we have the right mix of English and Spanish speakers at our schools to make it work. We’re very fortunate to have that.”

And to any neighborhood parents who may be on the fence, Hardwick encourages them to come have a free cup of coffee at their next open house.

“Come check us out — give us a try, give public education a try,” she says. “I think parents will be impressed with what they find.”n

Besides Withers and Walnut Hill, other DISD elementary schools in our Northwest Learning Community that will offer the dual immersion program for the 2009-2010 school year include: Caillet, De Zavala, Junkins, Lanier, Kramer, Medrano, Milam, Nathan Adams and Rosemont Primary.

Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Preston Hollow.