Demand for the Walla Walla School District’s dual-language program has continued to grow, fueling an expansion of two new kindergarten classes at Green Park Elementary next fall, school district officials said this week.

The two-way program blends children who primarily speak English and children who primarily speak Spanish and partners them to help learn from each other as they’re taught in both languages. Two years ago, the district began the process of converting Edison Elementary School into a wall-to-wall dual-language school.

The additional interest in the program was evident during a recent series of parent informational nights explaining the two-way English-Spanish language classes, said district spokesman Mark Higgins.

When the district’s bilingual department staff followed up with interviews of incoming kindergarten families, 130 children were identified as possible participants in the dual-language program next school year. Currently, the district can serve only 80 kindergartners at Edison, prompting the move to expand offerings at Green Park.

“Our families understand language is power,” said Victor Vergara, director of bilingual education and Latino outreach for Walla Walla schools.

Vergara said a bilingual education committee in 2017 recommended expanding the program to additional schools if participation outpaced Edison’s class space.

Edison will continue to have four dual-language kindergarten classes, he said Wednesday.

Higgins said the district’s dual-language instruction begins in kindergarten, where students spend most of the day learning through Spanish instruction. The percentage of English instruction increases as students progress through the program. The program model at Green Park will be identical to Edison.

Families living in the Green Park district that moved their children to Edison to take part in that school’s bilingual classes will have the option of staying or returning to their district school for the bilingual program there this fall, Vergara said.

The district is striving to maintain what is considered an ideal ratio of one-third native Spanish speakers, one-third native English speakers and one-third bilingual learners at both schools, Vergara said.

“We are seeing fewer students coming in with ‘only’ Spanish language, due to the fact that they are already second- or third-generation immigrants,” he said. “I believe soon we will have mainly a mix of bilingual and ‘English native’ students in our classrooms. The diversity will be the same, but the language background may be different.”

The bilingual program uses the buddy system — native Spanish speakers are paired with native English speakers — to advance their knowledge and skills. This also promotes cultural diversity and respect among all students, Higgins said, noting research shows bilingual students typically outperform English-only students in the classroom by the end of their elementary years.

“Green Park Elementary has a rich history of bilingual education and has the physical space available to allow for four classrooms at every grade level,” Vergara said.

The school’s size allows for two classrooms to be dual and two classrooms to be traditional English-only. In addition, 29 of 130 students who showed interest already reside within the Green Park attendance area, he said.

Plans call for the dual-language classes at Green Park and Edison to continue through fifth grade, officials said.

The district is notifying families to secure their spot in the program. Those interested in learning more about the dual-language program can call 526-6784.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers education in the Walla Walla Valley. She also writes a column, Home Place, usually highlighting family life and slices of local life.