After three years of learning Spanish in high school and college, Janeen Zambo can't "speak a lick of Spanish."
Wanting to give her son Jefferson an edge and teach him the value of different cultures, Zambo and her husband enrolled the 6-year-old in a dual-language program, where he's taught in Spanish and English. Less than eight months into his kindergarten year at Riverbank Language Academy, Jefferson is sounding out Spanish words, Zambo said.
"Our son is very active and verbal, and we felt he needed a real challenge. Everybody's looking for an edge for their kids," Zambo said.
"I've taught high school for 18 years and I've had a number of foreign exchange students and they've all said Americans wait too long to learn a second language. Most of them, especially the German students, speak two languages fluently and are working on a third language."
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English-only families such as the Zambos and Spanish-only families have another educational choice for their children. Modesto City Schools will offer a dual-language program for the first time this fall. It will join school districts in Turlock, Patterson and Riverbank that offer schools where students are taught math, science and other subjects in Spanish and English.
Modesto's program starts with kindergarten and will add a grade each following year. Enrollment is open to students who live in the district and is limited to about 80 to 100 students, said Melanie McCleary, district administrator of special projects. Classes will be at Fairview and Bret Harte elementary schools.
Officials have been working on developing a program for a few years, but starting it now helps the district compete with other area programs for students.
Providing alternative education programs meets the diverse needs of students, but it's also a way to attract and recruit students -- and money -- to school districts. Many districts are trying to generate revenue to get through the recession.
The program's cost is low because Modesto City Schools already employs bilingual teachers and the program will use existing facilities.
Research shows that students who learn two languages do better academically than those who don't, McCleary said. Students become bilingual, biliterate and bicultural, she said.
Parent Mary Gutierrez enrolls her two children -- sixth-grader Sergio and second-grader Maria -- in Patterson's dual-language program. For years, Gutierrez said she wished Modesto had a program her children could attend.
Learning two languages is "incredibly important, it's the wave of the future, being bilingual in our global society," she said. Although Gutierrez speaks Spanish and English, she and her husband usually talk to their children in Spanish.
"I knew if I didn't speak Spanish to my son, he'd lose it quickly," she said.
Gutierrez said she especially likes the group work that students do, the mainly Spanish-speaking students helping the mainly English-speaking students and vice versa.
"It helps students learn confidence," she said. "And they learn from each other."
Parents interested in registered their kindergarten children for the program can call McCleary at 576-4655.
Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2339.