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Scottsdale schools debate full language immersion

If Pueblo Elementary School principal Art Velarde’s proposal to expand a foreign language immersion initiative comes to fruition, all students will have the opportunity to learn Spanish alongside English.

Mr. Velarde presented his ideas to the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board at its Feb. 12 meeting, hoping to swell the Foreign Language Immersion program into a school-wide effort.

There are 408 of the school’s 628 students are enrolled in FLI.

The program started in the 2007-08 school year.

Though it only began in a few classrooms, Mr. Velarde said FLI has expanded over the years until it has reached its current capacity.

Mr. Velarde said the number of students enrolling in traditional, English-only classes has declined, while those registering in FLI have grown.

His proposal calls for FLI to gradually evolve to the point where students across all grades will be a part of FLI.

“Every year after next year (2013-14), we would be full foreign language immersion by one more grade level,” Mr. Velarde said.

In other words, by the 2017-18 school year, every student at Pueblo would participate in FLI.

Pueblo students not currently in the FLI program would not be impacted by this change.

Not only do students access new areas of their brains through integrating a second language, but they also can incorporate these tools into future grades, Mr. Velarde said.

Mr. Velarde said he is working with Mohave Middle School’s principal to carry FLI into seventh and eighth grades.

Mohave is currently piloting FLI for sixth grade. In future years, “we will be working with Saguaro (High School), where the program would continue all the way into 12th grade,” Mr. Velarde said.

Though students’ parents may not speak Spanish, resources such as an English web version of a mathematics textbook, can complement the Spanish homework the students bring home.

Mr. Velarde said advertisements, a bilingual literacy specialist, continued bussing to Pueblo as a choice school and support for the Spanish curriculum are all necessary in making this proposal a reality.

One major component of this plan would involve a boundary change.

“If we were to look at the boundary change and begin the process of converting to a school of choice, it would essentially mean that the Pueblo boundary would be absorbed by Navajo and by Kiva,” Dr. Jeff Thomas, associate superintendent of SUSD, said in referencing the other elementary schools in the learning community.

The plan calls for the Kiva boundary to move eastward, from along the Arizona Canal in its current state, to Hayden Road.

Dr. Thomas recommends the two bussing routes for Pueblo not change, but they would continue to examine their efficacy, already instituted each year.

However, should the district need to add two additional routes - one for Kiva, the other for Navajo - each is estimated to cost $10,800.

“We think we could do this with current route assignments and adjusting those, without having to add routes,” Dr. Thomas said, but he wanted to present this to the board just in case they need to explore the option at some point.
Parents and guardians of students that may be potentially impacted by the boundary change would be given 10 days’ notice via newsletters, print materials, the district website, among other formats.

Dr. Thomas said this phase-in would unfold over a four-year period, starting with kindergarten and first grade during the first year (2013-14), and then progress to other grades.

SUSD Governing Board members voiced support and concerns.

“I was just amazed at the language level of Spanish-speaking itty-bitties,” Denny Brown, vice president of SUSD Governing Board, said in referencing visiting Pueblo’s students.

“We give our parents in Scottsdale, Arizona the greatest choice of schools out there, and I just want to commend Pueblo,” Mr. Brown said.

“A wonderful job and I’m glad that we discovered that niche market and that we’re capitalizing on it,” Mr. Brown said.

Barbara Perleberg, SUSD Governing Board member, questioned Mr. Velarde about what specific challenges FLI may have in meeting Common Core standards.

Mr. Velarde said English and Spanish teachers have looked at Common Core and are having discussions on how to maintain established benchmarks.

“I’m very confident that we will be able to meet that challenge,” Mr. Velarde said.

Pam Kirby, SUSD Governing Board president, said she is excited to see FLI’s evolution and the program achieving its initial vision.

Ms. Kirby’s youngest daughter attended Pueblo in second grade, as Ms. Kirby was searching for an academic challenge.

“The language component develops the cognitive skills faster, and so therefore (students) tend to excel academically,” Ms. Kirby said.

Ms. Kirby said many families drive their children to Pueblo, even if they live outside of school or district boundaries, because they believe in the value of FLI.

Though FLI’s expansion and the boundary changes were only discussed at this meeting, Ms. Kirby said she anticipates Pueblo will present the expansion to the board as an agenda item for voting.

“Given that they (Pueblo) want to move forward with this in fall 2013… it would need to happen in the next four months,” Ms. Kirby said.

Mr. Velarde credits Terri Kellen, former Pueblo principal, and Jacque Hale, Pueblo assistant principal, for supporting Pueblo’s FLI program and thus elevating the school’s performance.

“We went from a ‘B’ school to an ‘A’ school within a year, and that already has basically brought a lot of parents out saying, ‘hey, good things are going on at Pueblo’,” Mr. Velarde said.

North Valley Editorial Intern Brett Nachman can be reached at 602-618-0000 via e-mail at or follow him at


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