SANTA FE – Jimmie Barber spoke Spanish at home before arriving at El Camino Real Academy in Santa Fe. The third grader now jokes with friends in English and Spanish.
That’s because the school’s dual-language immersion curriculum teaches math, reading and other subjects in both languages.
The landmark Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico lawsuit ordered the state to direct more resources to public schools. Part of that mandate calls for culturally relevant curriculum and more support for students learning English as a second language.
Teachers and administrators at El Camino Real say the school’s dual-language curriculum accomplishes both.
“I believe learning in both languages helps engage every student in the classroom in a way sticking to one language does not,” said Marquita Montaño, a dual-language reading interventionist at El Camino Real who works with students who are new to the United States.
At El Camino Real, 80% of kindergarten, 70% of first grade and 60% of second grade are taught in Spanish, while instruction in third through eighth grade is split evenly between the languages.
The school had the highest rate of English language learners in Santa Fe Public Schools last year at 54%. And with more than 800 students, it’s the largest non-high school in the district. Every El Camino Real student qualifies for free or reduced-priced lunch, which is determined by federal poverty levels.
Principal Jack Lain said the hardest part of operating the school, which opened in 2014, is hiring teachers. He has turned to Spain and Mexico to fill vacancies.
“This isn’t a maintenance program set up for Spanish speakers to transition to English. We’re a dual-language school striving to create bilaterally,” Lain said. “And even though you hear larger schools don’t have community, I think that the dual-language program creates community because we’re actively knocking down the language barrier that can be a barrier to community.”
The New Mexico Public Education Department defines four models for bilingual multicultural education programs: dual-language immersion like at El Camino Real; enrichment, which is designed to further develop the home language of fully English proficient students; heritage language, designed to revitalize a student’s native language; and maintenance, designed to develop literacy in a primary or home language while also developing a student’s English skills.
According to the Public Education Department, six of New Mexico’s 89 school districts offer bilingual multicultural education programs in a Native American language – either Keres, Navajo or Tewa. All those programs follow the enrichment or heritage model, and four districts have a bilingual Native language program at more than one school.
Pauletta White, assistant superintendent for student support services in Gallup-McKinley County Schools, said the district has at least one Navajo language teacher at every elementary school except for Ramah Elementary, which offers Zuni.
From kindergarten through second grade, parents have the option to enroll their child in the Native language class. Native American language programs require approval from tribal councils or from other appropriate tribal entities.
Some schools have more than one teacher and can offer Native language classes to more grades.
But White said teachers, who must be certified by both the Public Education Department and the Navajo Nation, are hard to find.