ST. GEORGE — Paradise Canyon Elementary School has won a 2021 School of the Year award for its Spanish-language dual immersion program. The recognition was bestowed by the Ministry of Education of the Embassy of Spain, and Paradise Canyon was honored as the best elementary school in the country.
Five dual immersion teachers at Paradise Canyon tracked student progress, demonstrated teaching methods and prepared a community presentation to submit as part of the application process. Elena Briz, a third grade teacher, was overjoyed when she found out they’d won.
“I called my parents in Spain and my friends straight away just to tell them, ‘We won!’” Briz said. “We wanted to show off our school and the kids and all the hard work we do. We also wanted to show the support from the district and the state. Our dual immersion program is one of the biggest and, I would say, the best.”
Besides Briz, other teachers involved in the application process included Merced Carreon, Irene Bernal, Diana Welch and Maria Gonzalez, along with Paradise Canyon Principal Susan Harrah and Title I director Eliza Maravilla.
In its announcement detailing Paradise Canyon’s selection, the Spanish Ministry of Education cited the elementary’s status as a school of excellence, the quality of the teacher’s instruction, the services available to low-income families and the abundance of bilingual resources and materials.
“I thank the school for its participation in the contest and its exceptional work in favor of the dissemination of the Spanish language and culture among its students and the community in general,” wrote Dr. Jesus Fernandez Gonzalez, the minister of education for the Spanish Embassy in the United States.
‘The beginning is hard, but then it’s amazing’
In 2006, Paradise Canyon – then called Dixie Downs Elementary School – was the first school in the area to implement a dual immersion program. The state of Utah implemented a standard for dual immersion programs in 2009, and Paradise Canyon slowly transitioned to match the statewide model in the years following.
“There’s a rich history in the dual immersion program at this school that no other school (in Utah) has had,” Harrah said.
The elementary school follows the Utah State Board of Education model for dual-immersion, which means students spend half their day in English and the other half in the school’s language of choice.
Marybeth Fuller, the Washington County School District dual immersion coordinator, said that there are 11 elementary schools offering dual immersion programs in the district: five teach Mandarin, four teach Spanish and two teach Portuguese.
“We have thousands and thousands of kids in the program,” Fuller said. “Being in an immersion classroom, you can’t feel anything other than joy. I’m seeing students learning and pushing themselves and also embracing differences that maybe they wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise.”
Under the state model, bilingual instruction begins in first grade with instruction in all subjects divided between English and the language of choice.
“It’s kind of hard because they put you in a class and the teacher’s already speaking a different language,” Briz said. “The beginning is hard, but then it’s amazing how they start getting the vocabulary. You grow little by little and with lots of support.”
At the intermediate level, students have the opportunity to continue their language immersion through two periods of language instruction, including language specific courses and history courses.
Dual immersion students can take AP exams for their language of study in 9th or 10th grade. In recent years, 100% of students who went through Paradise Canyon’s dual immersion program have passed the AP Spanish exam when they reached ninth grade.
‘It just opens up so many doors for them’
Theresa Sandoval is a native Spanish speaker who sends her children to Paradise Canyon. She told the St. George News about how much the program means to her and how it allows her daughter to help her classmates.
“I love the program,” Sandoval said. “When my daughter comes home, she’ll say, ‘Mom, today I helped my friends.’ She’s so excited and so happy when she can help the other kids when they don’t understand English.”
MarChe Hinds, a parent with two children currently attending the school, said that she’s seen her children demonstrate remarkable skill in Spanish even though it’s not spoken in their home.
“My son is able to speak with his friends that primarily speak Spanish at home,” Hindes said. “If someone in the grocery store needs help, he can translate for them. It gives them a better understanding of other cultures and teaches them how to include people even if they’re not the same as you. I think it just opens up so many doors for them.”
Whether children primarily speak English or Spanish in their homes, dual immersion programs like those at Paradise Canyon help bridge the gap between cultures and communities. Of the five teachers who prepared the application for Paradise Canyon, three are from Spain and two are from Mexico.
A portion of the instruction time is devoted to improving students’ cultural awareness and introducing them to new foods, activities and traditions. Many dual immersion teachers at Paradise Canyon, and throughout the district, have left family and homes in other countries to come and teach in Washington County, and this new award demonstrates the quality of their work.
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