A Decade Into Spanish Immersion In Washoe Schools

Jun 11, 2019

The Washoe County School District introduced its two-way immersion program a decade ago. It’s an opportunity for students to learn a secondary language and gain respect for another culture. KUNR’s Stephanie Serrano uncovers the challenges the district has had implementing this complex program.


Washoe has three elementary schools with dual language programs, Jessie Beck, Donner Springs and Mount Rose. The goal is for students to be biliterate and bilingual by the end of the program. This is not to be confused with a foreign language program. For example, taking one French or Portuguese class, once every other day at school.

Edith Gaw is an English language development facilitator who oversees the program.


"We teach the language through the content, so our dual-language teachers have a huge responsibility because they actually have an extra subject," Gaw said. "So like all teachers, they have to teach math standards, science, social studies and English language arts but also are fulfilling all the other requirements and passing state tests.”

Here’s how it works: at Beck and Donner the students are learning in Spanish 50 percent of the time and at Mount Rose it's 80 percent.

A former superintendent introduced the program almost a decade ago. At the time, principals of Beck, Donner and Mount Rose volunteered to host it.  

The district chose to teach Spanish, which makes sense given that 40 percent of the students enrolled in K-12 in Washoe are Latino according to the district. In order to find enough qualified Spanish teachers, the district has gone as far as Spain to recruit.

But three years into the program, leaders at the time reached out to national experts for help. Gaw explains why.

"We saw many things that needed more support because the programs were really put in place without understanding what is a dual-language program and how it’s different from monolingual classrooms,” Gaw said.

Cheryl Urow was one of those experts who stepped in to help. She was a dual-language teacher for many years in Chicago and is the manager and co-founder of The Center for Teaching for Biliteracy.

Ideally, Urow says the goal is to place 50 percent of heritage speakers or English-language learners with 50 percent of monolingual English speakers.

"If the goal of your program is to serve ELL who are historically underserved in the U.S. school system, then you need to enroll them in the program, and one thing is to be very strategic on where you put it. Where you put the dual language programs in schools that have higher population of ELL."

At Beck and Mount Rose the majority of students are white, while Donner has close to 50 percent Latino enrollment.

As of April, Mount Rose has the highest enrollment of all three immersion programs with 169 students but only 14 percent are ELL. At Beck, that number is 24 percent and at Donner it's 34.

Students who are heritage speakers, or ELL, can enroll at any grade level and receive a variance, but Edith Gaw says the real challenge is transportation.

"There is no money for busing at this point the pressure probably has to come more from the community,” Gaw said, “It has to be brought to the politicians, it has to be brought to the school district. A lot of people know it is beneficial. That is why you have, for example, this big push at Mount Rose, you look at the kids in there that are from district members, teachers, people who understand the importance--the benefit of dual language."

On the issue of bussing, here’s what Washoe Superintendent Traci Davis had to say.

“Here's what's interesting around that: When you talk about busing those kids out, there’s actually research that shows the opposite, you bus them away from their neighborhood schools and then they don't make friends and then we drop them back somewhere else,” Davis said.  

Today, with the lack of transportation most of the immersion classrooms have more monolingual English students than ELL or heritage students which can create a one-way immersion. Overall the district has more than 10,000 ELL students.  

Kim Potowski is a Professor of Hispanic linguistics at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“We have to be careful to not let the white family interest trump the interest and needs of our English-language learning Latino children,” Potowski said. “These programs--most of them--were created for empowerment and to close the academic achievement gaps and the English-language learning issues of our ELL children. It’s very important to keep in mind as we create and implement these programs.”

The disparity among these schools remains stark.

Mount Rose, which offers the immersion program from kindergarten to 8th grade, has the lowest percentage of ELL students. Donner, however, has the highest percentage of ELL students in both its school and in its immersion program, but right now its struggling to find qualified teachers. That means next school year there will no longer be a kindergarten or second grade immersion class and 6th grade is still pending, but leadership there says it isn’t looking too good.