In 2018, the Roaring Fork School District adopted a Seal of Biliteracy to encourage bilingual pathways to graduation for both English- and Spanish-speaking students, but bilingual education is not a new phenomenon in the valley. Basalt Elementary School celebrates the 25th anniversary of its dual language program this year.
“BES was one of the very first schools impacted by a greater percentage of students moving into our valley,” says Principal Suzanne Wheeler Del Piccolo, who came on board as principal shortly after the dual language program began.
Carbondale teacher Kenny Teitler helped design the fledgling program.
“We envisioned a dual language fifty-fifty model where there was time for both first language and second language literacy in a child’s day,” Teitler says. “The idea is that language should be additive rather than subtractive.”
The dual language model ensures that, regardless of which first language students have, they don’t sacrifice academics while learning a second language. Academic content translates in the brain regardless of which language it’s learned in.
“You only need to learn how to read one time,” Teitler says, “and you don’t need to learn what a period is twice.”
Today, the BES program is offered as an option at all elementary grades. Students learn literacy in their primary language for part of the day, while science, social studies, math and additional literacy classes are taught in alternating English or Spanish instruction. It’s a rigorous model but one that ensures students have access to content in both their first and second languages.
Research shows that elementary school is an ideal time to introduce a second language. Up until around the age of 8, a student’s neural pathways are more open to learning a new language. The cognitive boost that a second language provides can shape everything from executive function skills to empathy to cultural awareness, and ultimately that skill translates out to broader career opportunities.
Although BES is the only Basalt school with a specific dual language program, the benefits of this early immersion can transcend the lack of a dual language program in later grades (both BMS and BHS offer separate language options). BES second grade teacher Jessie Anderson not only went through the BES dual language program but also returned later to help teach it.
“Going into high school, it was a huge asset,” Anderson says. “I was able to recall almost all the Spanish I had learned in elementary school. I had a leg up over others and that continued into college.”
That advantage doesn't surprise Teitler, whose own research at BES showed that English-speaking students in the program scored substantially higher on testing later in school. He attributes that success to the way a bilingual brain has to make connections and learn how to learn. For Spanish-native speakers, the benefits are additionally impactful, allowing students to maintain their cultural identity with pride and their parents to more readily access the learning as well.
“It’s an asset-based model for both English-native and Spanish-native speakers,” Wheeler says. “I have kids who are proud to be bilingual and they tell me that. Kids see themselves as Spanish experts and English experts. Whatever they bring to the schoolhouse is valued.”
Last year, with Roaring Fork School District help, BES revamped its programming and curriculum, provided more professional development to teachers, and better articulated the program to families. This year, 90 percent of the kindergarten class chose the dual language option.
“Increasingly, people see the value of learning more than one language and that learning a language with younger children has a far higher success rate than the traditional American model of introducing a language in ninth grade,” Wheeler says.
Teitler agrees, and both are thrilled to see learning a second language being valued more than ever before. Teitler quotes an apt Spanish saying: “aprender un segundo idioma te abre más puertas que un millón de llaves” or: “learning a second language opens more doors than a million keys.”
Basalt Elementary School will celebrate the program’s silver anniversary on March 14 with a school-wide International Dinner and Annual Art Show from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. for all students and families. Families are encouraged to bring a dish that honors their family traditions and will get to see a special Folklórico dance performance by the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet.