Students spend half of their day in English-speaking classes and the other half learning in French, Spanish, Portuguese and Mandarin. Dual language programs are booming in Utah. Educators in half of the state’s 41 school districts are preparing their students to compete in the global economy.
In this deeply Mormon state, the school day is being translated into Chinese. Strains of Taiwanese pop songs float through the hallways. School cafeterias serve dumplings. Third graders pass notes in Mandarin. And when visitors enter a classroom, the students shout, “Ni hao!”
“If I close my eyes, I see a room full of Chinese children,” said Colleen Densley, the principal of Wasatch Elementary School here in central Utah, recalling the words of one amazed teacher. “If I open my eyes I see my American students.”
For generations, Mormon missionaries from Utah have crisscrossed the globe and returned home speaking Tagalog and Xhosa. Now, with hopes of preparing students for a competitive world economy, the state is building one of the largest and most ambitious school-language programs in the nation.
Dual-language classes have existed for years, but they are now growing fast in many states as an outcry against bilingual education fades and educators look for ways to prepare American students for a polyglot global job market. But few have embraced the idea with such unlikely zeal as Utah, a state that passed an English-only law in 2000 and routinely ranks last in the nation on education spending, according to United States Census figures.
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