Leticia Varela instructs her classes in Spanish and English. Photo by Can Türkyilmaz

Leticia Varela’s fifth-grade students at Rosemont Elementary School are learning about the moon.

Their assignment is to find out its characteristics, how big it is, how far away. At computers, they work in groups to research. Their conversations are slightly atypical. Most students communicate in English, and a few speak Spanish. Ms. Varela’s instructions typically are in Spanish, but sometimes, she clarifies in English. The students’ final presentations on the moon will be given in Spanish.

These fifth-graders are the first class of Rosemont’s dual-language program. Almost all of them started the program as kindergartners.

“This is the pioneer group,” Varela says. “This is the one that’s been setting the standard.”

When the next school year starts, some of the students will move on to Greiner Middle School, but about 70 will stay at Rosemont, which is offering a dual-language middle school program starting with sixth-graders in the fall. The program will expand to seventh and eighth grade by the 2014-15 school year.

Some students are choosing Greiner because they want lockers, passing periods and all those little things that make the middle school experience. Greiner also has a highly regarded music program, which is a draw.

It took more than three years of work, says principal Anna Brining, but the school board finally gave its OK to expand the dual-language program last year.

The move mostly was an effort by parents who didn’t want their kids to fall off in language skills between fifth grade and ninth grade, when Spanish is offered again.

A Rosemont Elementary School fifth-grader works on a project about the moon. She is a part of the first class of dual-language students at the school. Photo by Can Türkyilmaz

“It was a full community, grassroots effort,” Brining says.

Parent Raul Treviño says the dual-language program challenges his kids, who are in fourth and fifth grades. Too many schools obsess over standardized tests and reward students who meet minimum requirements, he says.

“It’s a really rigorous curriculum. The rigor of a dual-language curriculum allows our children to give more effort at school,” Treviño says. “I’m a proponent of effort-based education.”

Besides that, it’s a way for Latino kids to stay in touch with Spanish and their family heritage. And all the students receive language instruction they wouldn’t normally receive until high school.

“We’re Mexican American, and our language and culture and heritage are very important parts of our lives,” Treviño says. “Our children have grandparents who are Spanish speakers, who live in Mexico, so for them to be able to connect to their culture and language and heritage is very important to us.”

Rosemont also is considering adding a third language, possibly French or Mandarin, for the middle school program.

Most fifth-graders in the dual-language program have had the same language partners since kindergarten.

“They’re almost like family,” Varela says. “They have to learn how to communicate in two languages. They know each other very well.”