DUNEDIN — Two months ago, Willow Barner didn't speak a lick of Spanish. But on a recent Wednesday, the first-grade girl shook her hands and wiggled her hips as she sang, "Uno dos tres, cha-cha-cha!"
"Isn't it amazing?" marveled her teacher, Allison Kuckkahn.
"Cuatro cinco seis, cha-cha-cha," sang Willow.
Since 2010, Dunedin Elementary has offered a dual-language immersion program that is drawing both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking families interested in a bilingual education.
Garrison-Jones Elementary, also in Dunedin, added a similar program in 2011. School staff say the program boosts student achievement and confidence, as well as family involvement.
But as students of the relatively new programs age out of elementary schools, school officials are looking for ways to keep their new tongues going in the upper grades.
Like Kuckkahn, kindergarten teacher Amada Perez likes to use song to teach the children their new language. "You're braver when you speak in chorus," Perez says.
At Dunedin Elementary, students switch between two classrooms midway through the day. They learn math, science and a bit of reading in one class that's taught entirely in Spanish, then focus on reading comprehension and other language skills in an English-speaking class.
The classrooms are connected, and the students spend roughly the same time in each.
"It breaks down the status of each language. It equalizes them," Kuckkahn says.
She also encourages parents who don't speak English to help their children with their homework. Because plenty of the work is in Spanish, parents who may otherwise feel alienated from the school can be more involved, Kuckkahan says.
The program at Dunedin and Garrison-Jones is unusual.
While Ridgecrest Elementary School's gifted center teaches students Spanish, the school requires an application, certain scores, and doesn't necessarily cater to those learning English.
There are sparse options for dual-language education in the middle schools.
Janet Kucerik, the world languages specialist for Pinellas County Schools, says the district does not have plans now, but ideally it would build full dual-language immersion programs at Dunedin Highlands and Morgan Fitzgerald middle schools.
"It is something that I'm hoping would happen," Kucerik says.
In Kuckkahn's class, the students plead to play their favorite games. With a dog puppet on her hand, she asked Jonathan Ortiz if he would be willing to trade his sandwich for a dog bone.
Laughing, he answered in both languages: "No!"
Contact Lisa Gartner at [email protected] You can also follow her on Twitter @lisagartner.