Arizona students immersed in Spanish and Chinese

Superintendent Debbi C. Burdick boosts student achievement with world languages
By: | Issue: May, 2015
April 13, 2015

Immersing students at Cave Creek USD with foreign language catapulted them above state average test scores.

In 2008, Superintendent Debbi C. Burdick and the governing board launched a world language program that included Spanish and Chinese immersion programs beginning in elementary school.

The Arizona district’s program grew to include a partnership with Hanban/Confucius InstituteÑa public institution affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of EducationÑto provide Chinese language and cultural teaching resources.

Students in the various world language programs have excelled above and beyond district and state averages, pushing the district up in rankings to fifth out of 227 districts in Arizona. The Spanish immersion students consistently test higher than the district and the state average.

What was the impetus for the world language program?

At a governing board retreat in 2006 when I was assistant superintendent, we were trying to devise a vision and future direction. The governing board wanted every child to have access to learning other languages.

Research shows that elementary students who have studied another language develop greater cognitive skills in mental flexibility, creativity, higher order thinking and multitasking. Kids’ brains have the wiring needed to acquire any language in the world.

But there is a developmental “window of opportunity” that will close. We want our youngsters to have better proficiency with their first and second languages by keeping the languages together and keeping them in their frontal lobesÑrather than separate, as we see with adults’ brains when they learn another language.

How was the program implemented?

In 2006, we had a Spanish immersion program at Desert Willow Elementary, which started in first grade. A grade was added every year, as were kindergarten classes. It was a signature program with a lottery system, so only half of one school was learning.

In 2008, I became the superintendent. We were approached by a community member who was in touch with a Chinese internship program. Sias University in Zhengzhou, China, uses graduated-students-turned-employees to teach Chinese to children of its English-speaking professors.

Several of us went to China to interview candidates and form a partnership with the university where they would send their employees to us for a year to teach Chinese to our students. Cave Creek USD parents housed the Chinese instructors while Sias University paid their salaries.

We were then able to get non-district school funding to start a flex program in which all elementary students had access to languagesÑthree schools offer Spanish and two Chinese. Then we got more funding from HanBan/Confucius Institute to hire teachers.

Technology is used a lot in the language programs, whether it is with the flex or immersion programs. In addition to smartboard technology for teachers, students use smartphones, Chromebooks and iPads in the language classrooms as part of our district’s BYOD program.

What is offered to students?

We started with after-school clubs and informal activities to get languages in the schools and to increase interest. Preschools at two schools offer Chinese. The youngest children learn songs, counting, phrases, colors, storybooks and more so they can begin to orally communicate.

After second grade, we typically don’t allow students to enter an immersion program unless they take summer classes to catch up or are native speakers. In the intermediate grades, they are writing, reading and doing projects in the language, then turn to grammar in middle school.

In middle school, students can continue in the immersion program or take a world languageÑFrench, Spanish or ChineseÑas a core subject in the flex program.

We also have a separate immersion class where they learn subjects in Spanish. In middle school, social studies is taught in the immersion class while elementary immersion classes are offered for science and math. Horseshoe Trails Elementary began offering Chinese immersion classes this year. Our high school continues to offer Spanish immersion opportunities and we have recently added Chinese.

What are the outcomes?

By the time students in immersion programs are in fifth or sixth grade, they seem to have blown the top off of achievement tests. The 2014 AIMS (Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards) math results showed that the percentage of students in the Spanish immersion program meeting and/or exceeding standard was consistently higher than the district and the state average in grades 3 through 8.

Fourth-graders scored 100 percent versus 82 and 61, respectively, while seventh-graders’ percentage results were 97, 82 (district) and 74 (state). For reading, eighth grade Spanish immersion students received 96 percent versus 85 and 70, respectively. Writing results showed 97 percent for sixth grade immersion students.

We are now fifth out of 227 districts in the state. What moved the needle for our district was teaching world languages. The benefits are so intriguing in regard to how this has affected other areas of study. Our most popular electives in the high school are world languages. Students are talking about going into global business as a goal and using their world language in what they will be when they graduate college.

What do you think of these programs?

I started taking Spanish in third grade and grew up in a multilingual home. I believe, in our world, everyone should speak a second language. There will be times when no one speaks English when we travel the world. We are very fortunate to be in a district where we could invest in this important curriculum.

Our students excel in 21st century skills when they learn a second language. It makes them better global citizens. Our schools Skype with sister schools in other countries. They have visited each other. We want those students in our district to have a bigger picture beyond our area of Arizona.

Ariana Rawls Fine is newsletter editor.