WOODSTOCK – Starting first grade is daunting for many students, but Woodstock North High School senior Marshall Coalson remembers it to be quite literally incomprehensible.
“The first day I was there, [the teacher] started speaking in Spanish, saying ‘Hola’ and asking how we were in Spanish,” Coalson recalled, laughing to himself in an empty classroom at Woodstock North. “I had no clue what was going on.”
His first day was a big moment for him, but it also was a big moment for Woodstock School District 200, marking the first year of its now-12-year-old dual language program. Coalson is one of 20 students graduating after having gone through the program all 12 years. Eight more seniors started the program after first grade.
In education, dual language means students learn the various subjects in two languages, and for students in McHenry County schools, it means a portion of students are English speakers while the other portion are identified as dominant in Spanish. The goal is that students will leave school fluent in both languages and much more culturally aware than before.
For Coalson, whose parents do not speak any Spanish, there was a moment at age 12 when he realized just how much he was actually absorbing.
He was in Disney World with his family and met an Argentinian family on a tour bus. They spoke and he understood, so he said something back. Once the moment registered, the conversation struck him.
“I was like ‘Holy crap, I know what they just said. I know what I just said,’ “ Coalson said, eyes wide as he told the story. “It was just like ... this thing really works.”
Director of the District 200 Grants, Language and Culture Keely Krueger says the same of the program, citing achievement benefits for both English learners and native English speakers.
According to figures she provided, the 70.3 percent of formerly identified English-learner eighth-graders tested proficient in the fall Measure of Academic Progress reading test, which is up “dramatically” from the 38 percent who were proficient five years earlier.
In the Assessment of Performance in Proficiency of Languages, administered by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, 94 percent of both English learners and native English speakers in grades three through eight are proficient in listening in Spanish while 88 percent are proficient in reading in Spanish, Krueger added.
“I feel that we’re giving students an amazing gift by being bilingual and biliterate,” Krueger said. “Plus, having the ability to work with a diverse group of people – I think that is very beneficial to students. It will make them more competitive, especially now when we’re living in such a global world.”
Crystal Lake Elementary School District 47 also started a program in 2004, which has grown from three sections to 44 with about 925 students participating. Harvard School District 50 and Algonquin-based School District 300 also have dual language, while Cary School District 26 will have one starting next school year.
Parts of the program were challenging, Woodstock North students said.
Learning math in Spanish and then transitioning back to English was one of the more difficult aspects for 17-year-old Gianna McGuire. Plus, bringing Spanish homework and papers home to only-English-speaking parents added to the stress at times, she added.
But having overcome such challenges, the senior described why it was a program she knew was worth it – and she said it all in Spanish.
“I want to become a nurse, and I’d like to become a bilingual nurse,” McGuire said, later translated for this reporter. “Being able to speak English and Spanish will help me get that job.”
Others in her class agreed.
Woodstock North senior Maria Sanchez, 18, plans to attend Roosevelt University in the fall and right now wants to become a bilingual school counselor. After spending time in a counselor’s office herself, Sanchez said it became evident there was a need for more people who could better relate to Spanish-speaking students.
“It was hard because I wanted to talk about things in Spanish, but there’s no one who speaks Spanish in the guidance office,” she said.
Eighteen-year-old Yesenia Carbajal, too, plans to put her bilingualism to use as a dual language or Spanish teacher in high school.
The students were invited to participate in a separate graduation ceremony, in addition to the upcoming schoolwide event, to recognize their time in the program. On their diplomas, students were able to get a seal of biliteracy, Carbajal said.
“It signifies that we’re bilingual,” she said. “And that is going to open up more opportunities for us everywhere we go.”