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As Utah’s first dual-immersion students are prepping for college, so is their language program

First Published      Last Updated Apr 30 2016 10:23 pm

Education » Utah program’s first group of students is poised to attain college credit through Advanced Placement exams.

Layton • Layton High School sophomore Mikelle Argyle doesn't consider herself fluent in Spanish, but she feels confident about taking the AP Spanish test this week.

That's because Argyle — a native English speaker — has spent a portion of every school day speaking Spanish since she was in first grade.

Argyle and her classmates, plus a similar group of sophomores at Viewmont High, were the first students enrolled in a pilot program, now in 138 schools statewide, where elementary students spend half their days learning math, science and other subjects in an immersion, or non-native, language.

"Pretty soon we were getting better and better," Argyle said of the group's Spanish skills. "We were almost on the same level as our teachers at a certain point."

Since 2006, Utah's dual-immersion program has dropped elementary children into an environment where, from Day 1, they're expected to complete their reading, writing and arithmetic in a foreign tongue.

The program followed students into junior high in 2012 with the creation of immersion courses in social studies, health and humanities, which supplemented pre-existing language electives to allow for part-time immersion beyond elementary school.

The result is a fast-track to Advanced Placement language courses, which are traditionally taken by high school juniors and seniors, and allow students to earn lower-division college credit by passing an AP exam.

"In first grade it was the most difficult, but after that, it just seemed normal," said Layton High sophomore Jordan Brown. "The hardest part, actually, was trying to learn the stuff back again in English."

And with years to go before the immersion students graduate from high school, the program is launching a final step that will connect students with university-level language education.

Beginning this fall, students who pass an AP language course and exam will have the option to enroll in a suite of three concurrent enrollment courses that, in a first for Utah, will award upper-division university credit to high school students.

"When they graduate from any Utah high school, they're only two classes short of having a minor in that target language," said Gregg Roberts, world language specialist for the Utah Office of Education.

The latest change marks the culmination of a comprehensive, K-12 language immersion program, the first of its kind in the country and more than a decade in the making for Utah.

And for some students on the front line of the program, like Layton sophomore Lauren Forsgren, the decision to put 12 years of Spanish skills toward a college minor is a no-brainer.

"If I'm two classes short, I'm going to take those two classes and get [the minor]," she said. "That's easy, that's fast, and it's going to be useful to me."

Modern literacy • The walls of the Layton High classroom where Argyle, Brown, Forsgren and their immersion classmates are prepping for the AP exam are lined with flags of Spanish-speaking countries, Salvador Dalí posters, clocks marking the time for Madrid, Buenos Aires and Mexico City, and phrases like "¡Expresate!" — an encouragement for students to express themselves.

Their teacher, Ingrid Campos, immigrated from Madrid last year for the teaching job, one of many foreign-born educators recruited to Utah to beef up the immersion program.

"I speak 100 percent in Spanish with them," she said of her students. "They don't even know I speak English."

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Utah’s dual-immersion program

» 2009-2010: 1,400 students in 25 schools

» 2010-2011: 5,500 students in 40 schools

» 2011-2012: 9,400 students in 56 schools

» 2012-2013: 14,000 students in 77 schools

» 2013-2014: 20,000 students in 98 schools

» 2014-2015: 25,000 students in 118 schools

» 2015-2016: 29,000 students in 138 schools

Source: Utah State Office of Education