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Trilingual School Solves Problems

By Laurel Morales

Flagstaff, AZ – It's the only school of its kind in the country. Everyone must study English but parents have an option to send their children to learn Spanish or Navajo.

Eileen Ryan teaches Dine - the native Navajo language - to kindergarteners. Navajo is Ryan's first language. But today she says fewer and fewer children are exposed to it.

"I think it gives the children here at Puente the opportunity to know that who they are has a language and who they are has a culture," Ryan says.

This is really important in a school district population that is 50 percent minorities.

A decade ago half of Flagstaff students whose first language wasn't English failed the state standards test. Many were dropping out.

"The idea for Puente De Hozho really evolved out of a concern to create an environment of students of different languages and cultural backgrounds who can learn harmoniously together, where language minority students weren't viewed as problems to be solved but viewed as the heart and soul of the school," says Flagstaff Bilingual Education Director Michael Fillerup.
Today most children who attend Puente de Hozho are passing the state standards tests while learning two languages. Last year fifth and sixth graders did better than the state and district average in reading and math.

Students who have chosen Spanish spend half of the day in an English-only classroom and half of the day in a Spanish classroom. Principal Dawn Trubakoff hires only native speakers and the school has a strict no translation policy.

And Trubakoff says it has worked.

"I felt like I was on the bleeding edge passed cutting," Trubakoff says. "We did try to fly under the radar for a long time. Now we're not just claiming this works we have data now we have successes we have students going on."

School officials have finally put a cap on the waiting list. Trubakoff says they were turning away as many as 80 students a year.

Kate Malone's family was lucky. She has two sons who attend Puente. She says her oldest son loved it from his first day but her youngest was plagued with stomach aches and headaches his first weeks.
"But his teachers are very aware that these kids learning two different languages need extra love and support and now he's fine and he's thriving," Malone says.

And Malone says the opportunity is worth a little struggle. She says they're not only enriched academically but culturally as well. Research has shown children who learn a second language are better problem solvers and have enhanced cognitive skills.

Malone's oldest son Sean thinks learning Spanish is fun most of the time.
"Sometimes it's frustrating when you knew the word yesterday and you can't remember it today," Malone says.
Sean will have the opportunity to continue this language rich education. Administrators are planning to offer middle and high school programs in the next couple years.