Spanish immersion from kindergarten through eighth-grade

Kaden Ballard waters the garden at Sanger Elementary, which is growing into a middle school. Modular buildings will act as classrooms until funding is allocated for a new wing: Photo by Patty Bates-Ballard

Kaden Ballard waters the garden at Sanger Elementary, which is growing into a middle school. Modular buildings will act as classrooms until funding is allocated for a new wing: Photo by Patty Bates-Ballard

Sanger Elementary in Forest Hills is one of the few Dallas ISD elementary schools whose dual language students are immersed in Spanish. This means that not only does it have classrooms with native English speakers trying to learn Spanish, but those students are learning in Spanish 70 percent of the time — every subject except math.

It used to be 50 percent of the time, like most other Dallas ISD dual language programs.

“We made the observation that students were not using their Spanish in conversations in second-grade,” says Sanger principal Hector Martinez, “so we decided, ‘Let’s try something new. We want our students to begin speaking at an earlier age.’ ”

Along the way, parents of dual language students began to wonder what would happen once their children left the program. In sixth-grade, Sanger students move to Gaston Middle School, which doesn’t have dual language curriculum.

“It takes up to eight years to be bi-literate, and DISD does not have an answer to the question of what do we do with sixth- through eighth-grade students who have been in this program,” says Kelly Clayton, whose son, Henry, will be a second-grader in Sanger’s immersion program this year, and whose daughter, Katie, will be a kindergartner.

The idea of extending Sanger through the middle school years began floating around a couple of years ago, and Martinez worked with Clayton and other Sanger parents to make it a reality last spring. As a result, 65 of last year’s fifth-graders will return as sixth-graders this fall and will be able to remain at the school until they are eighth-graders.

Parents are thrilled, not only with the idea of extending the dual language program but also with the option of a tight-knit middle school.

“Middle school kids are hormonal and they’re going through all this change, so you’re going to have some amount of drama to have 1,000-plus of them together,” says Patty Bates-Ballard, whose youngest son, Kaden, is a fourth-grader in Sanger’s dual language program. “To have 100 of them mixed in with other ages, and anchored with teachers that they’ve known, gives them some support they wouldn’t have in a typical middle school.”

The words, “That’s such a great middle school,” are rarely — if ever — uttered by parents. It’s not necessarily a reflection of the schools themselves; it has more to do with the large size of middle schools compared to elementary schools, and with the physical, social, emotional and hormonal changes Bates-Ballard mentions, which inevitably impact academic learning.

Of the 200-plus Sanger parents who were asked to sign the petition she circulated, Bates-Ballard says only two or three were hesitant about adding a middle school.

“We’re helicopter parents. Let’s not kid ourselves,” Clayton says. “The idea of being in a smaller, close-knit school where I’m going to know a lot of kids my child is in school with, is appealing. These kids will grow up together, and the teachers have grown up with these kids and know their quirks and how they learn, so it’s the continuity.”

Sanger parents are not alone in their desire to prolong the elementary atmosphere. Rosemont Elementary in Oak Cliff launched a dual language middle school in fall 2013, and Harry Stone and George Bannerman Dealey Montessori schools both continue through sixth-grade and have seventh- and eighth-grade academies. Parents at Preston Hollow Elementary also are petitioning to extend their International Baccalaureate curriculum into the middle school years.

A 2014 change in board policy may open the door for more Dallas ISD schools to make this conversion. When trustees were asked to approve grade configuration changes for East Dallas’ Mount Auburn and Eduardo Mata elementary schools, making them two distinct schools rather than one feeding into the other, trustees opted instead to pass an amendment that gave administrators authority to make such decisions.

Facility restraints are still a factor, however, and additions require board and, often, voter approval. A few kindergarten through eighth-grade schools are part of the tentative bond package trustees are considering, including 24 new classrooms and an expanded cafeteria for Sanger’s middle school students.

Though parent advocacy may have been the beginning of Sanger’s transition, “parents can’t be driving the train with someone who’s not on board,” Clayton says, referring to Martinez’ support and efforts.

Martinez also felt strongly about not limiting Sanger’s middle school to dual language students; its traditional students are welcome to continue, too.

“We felt like we didn’t want to close that door to them at their home school,” Martinez says. “We wanted to be inclusive rather than exclusive.”

So any student zoned to Sanger can continue at the school through middle school — roughly one-third of the incoming sixth-graders are traditional students, Martinez says — and transfers may be accepted if space is available. Currently, few families in the Forest Hills, Little Forest Hills and Casa Linda neighborhoods send their students to Sanger. Martinez and Sanger parents hope this will change as word gets out.

“Sanger has the make-up of the majority of the DISD schools, in that the majority of students live in poverty,” Clayton says. “I don’t know if that’s scary to people; it’s not scary to me, but some people are still tentative.

“My hope is that it will be embraced and people will not want to transfer out. Most are probably transferring to private, not public,” Clayton says. “Once it starts to get its legs, it will really start to create momentum. It takes time. It’s a cultural shift.”

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