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Arizona Opens its First Dual-Language Public Elementary School

In August 2016, Desert Sun Academy became the first public elementary school in Arizona to offer a dual-language immersion program in French and English, available for two kindergarten and first-grade classes.

Hayden Enriquez, 5, spends three hours a day learning to count and name the colors of the rainbow in French. She will start learning the alphabet when she arrives in first grade next year. Just like her, almost 50 students from kindergarten and first grade are following the French-English dual-language immersion program introduced in August by Desert Sun Academy — the first public elementary school in Arizona to offer this opportunity.

“Our school district already offered a dual-language program for Spanish and Mandarin from first kindergarten until high school, but French was only available from middle school upwards”, says Micah Korb, the Principal of the school in North Scottsdale, north of Phoenix. “As a result, last January we started looking into dual-language immersion programs for elementary schools.”

After visiting several dual-language schools in Los Angeles and in Utah — where the French-English immersion program launched in 2009 now includes 3,800 students across 20 schools — Desert Sun Academy opted for the educational model known as “50/50”. An Anglophone teacher teaches each class language arts and social sciences for the first half of the day, before a Francophone teacher teaches mathematics and sciences for the second half. “These two latter subjects are taught through hands-on activities and visual materials”, says Cristina Ladas, World Language & Immersion Coordinator at Desert Sun Academy. “They are ideal for initiating students into the French language.”

Two French language assistants have also started working at Desert Sun Academy to help the American teachers in the dual-language program. They will spend the year at the school thanks to the French embassy’s TAPIF (Teaching Assistant Program in France) which places French assistants in American learning institutions.

A new class every year

Arizona — a traditionally conservative state — voted in a law making English its official language in June 2006. But some 30% of the students in Arizona speak Spanish or another language than English at home. “French is not usually offered in local schools”, says Robyn Enriquez, whose daughter Hayden is part of the dual-language program in kindergarten. “But we have read articles saying that French will grow in popularity in the next decade, and that it will help our daughter with her studies and jobs in the future.”

“Is your child prepared for the world?” This is the question displayed on the Desert Sun Academy website since last spring, and it quickly convinced students’ parents of the importance of the French program. “African Francophone countries cover a larger area than the United States”, says the school principal. “More than 220 million people across 55 countries speak French. Through languages, we want to prepare our students to be competitive in tomorrow’s global economy.”

The school now hopes to extend its dual-language program as the students get older: a second-grade class will open in August 2017, a third-grade class will open in 2018, etc. After sixth grade, the students at Desert Sun Academy will be able to continue their education at Sonoran Trails Middle School, then at Cactus Shadows High School, which both have existing French-English dual-language programs.

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