Teacher Laura Huazo-Saavedra works with kindergartners at St. Vincent de Paul School in Salem last year. Starting this fall, the school will offer a dual immersion program in English and Spanish. (Courtesy St. Vincent de Paul School)
Teacher Laura Huazo-Saavedra works with kindergartners at St. Vincent de Paul School in Salem last year. Starting this fall, the school will offer a dual immersion program in English and Spanish. (Courtesy St. Vincent de Paul School)

SALEM — Father Manuel Becerra, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Salem, feels joyful that the parish school is about to begin a dual immersion program in Spanish and English. 

Dual immersion will begin this fall with kindergarten — perhaps in person, perhaps online, perhaps some of both. New classes will join each year until the entire pre-K to 5 school is engaged in two languages’ worth of academics, culture and mutual respect. 

“The abilities, skills and capacities for our students will be invaluable,” said Father Becerra.

In Salem, where more than 23% of the population is Hispanic, parents have insisted that there is a strong need for formal education in both languages. St. Vincent de Paul staff have been preparing the program during the pandemic. 

“We are aware of the needs of our community and offering this immersion program is one more step in achieving our goal of supporting students to reach a successful future,” said Father Becerra, who himself is fluent in English and Spanish.

More than 70% of the students at St. Vincent de Paul School are Hispanic. Though Spanish is their first language, their command of the language is in beginning stages. “It is essential to support them in strengthening their first language,” Father Becerra explained.

Traditional programs focus on getting Spanish-speaking students to assimilate English as soon as possible. Dual immersion programs, on the other hand, offer opportunities to use and excel at both languages.

Kindergartners will learn 90% in Spanish and 10% in English. As they move to fifth grade, the language balance will be 50-50. 

Research has shown cognitive, social and health benefits for people who speak two or more languages. Father Becerra said the double immersion program at St. Vincent de Paul is based on scientific research and best practices. Catholic schools in California with dual immersion programs are sharing their experiences and offering support.

“Our program is not only focused on teaching bilingualism, but also on the development of academic competencies in both languages so that students are bicultural and develop respect for diversity,” the priest said.

The studies are clear: Development of multiple languages improves students’ academic and social skills.

“We have a moral obligation to educate children in the most appropriate way and being bilingual or multilingual offers great advantages,” said Father Becerra. “The ability to function in two languages, in addition to being bicultural, offers more opportunity.”

The number of Hispanic students enrolled in public schools increased from 6 million in 1995 to 13.6 million in 2017, according to the National Center for Education Statistics in the United States. By 2017, Hispanic students made up more than a quarter of all students in public schools. “Immersion in both languages is an educational trend,” Father Becerra said. “We are working hard to make education accessible to our Hispanic families.”

He has full confidence in the Catholic schools department at the Archdiocese of Portland Pastoral Center. He said western Oregon’s Catholic schools are marked by “unique faith-based education, excellent quality and academic rigor.”

At Catholic schools, parents are called into active participation in their children’s learning, forming a community with students and teachers.

“As parents, it is a primary task to be involved in our children’s learning, especially in the context of religious education,” said Pilar Torres, mother of a new student at St. Vincent de Paul. “We are very excited. We value our language and culture and are proud. It is a blessing to have this program in our community.”

Studies confirm that when parents show interest in the education of their children, they stimulate the students’ motivation and enthusiasm.

“It is important to preserve our culture and even more enriching to learn the two cultures within the teaching of the Catholic faith,” said Susana Hernández, mother of two students from St. Vincent de Paul. “We know about the educational excellence in Catholic schools and we are very happy for the opportunity.”

The dual immersion will certainly begin, but the format is still unclear because of the pandemic status.

“We are closely following the state guidelines and metrics for opening; I’m in the process of developing plans for hybrid and in-person classes,” said Angélica Gloria, principal of St. Vincent de Paul School. “We will have remote learning options available as well. We want to ensure the health and safety of all our students and we mill make sure that our plans reflect the necessary protocols and procedures set forth by the state and local health officials.” 





Learn more

Registrations are open. Families can obtain more information by contacting the school at 503-363-4589 or visiting svdpschoolsalem.org.