Principal Scott Eastman and at least a dozen teachers didn’t leave Munger Mountain Elementary School until after 1 a.m. Saturday.
“I put my kids to bed and came back,” Eastman said. “There were still teachers here when I left later that night. The commitment to this school is phenomenal.”
Opening a new school isn’t easy. But after years of uncertainty about the location south of town, how and where the dual immersion program would be structured and obtaining state funding, Teton County School District No. 1’s newest school opened on time Tuesday morning.
“It’s finally here,” Eastman said. “I’m pinching myself.”
Tuesday was a crisp early fall day, one that started cold and quickly warmed up. Students, from little kindergartners to gangly fifth-graders, streamed through the doors of the new school. Everything was new, down to the pristine white basketballs in the gym and fresh flowers outside some teachers’ rooms, and some flex rooms were still being set up.
The halls were abuzz with chatter as friends caught up with one another and teachers, wearing bright blue Munger Mountain shirts with the school’s wolf mascot on them, met their new students. “Buenos dias” and “good morning” filled the air interchangeably.
The dual immersion program includes native English-speaking students and native speakers of Spanish. The school district was the first in Wyoming to create a dual program, but other districts are now following suit and looking to Jackson for inspiration.
While improving test scores of native Spanish-speaking students was a primary goal of the program when it began, that’s by no means the only benefit or outcome. Eastman, who is also the dual immersion coordinator K-12 for the district, has touted cognitive skills, preparation for a 21st-century job market and other strengths that are harder to quantify, like empowerment. When students graduate they are biliterate, meaning they can read and write in different languages, and bilingual, meaning they can speak two languages fluently.
The program’s structure is changing slightly this year, with each content area being taught in English and Spanish instead of being segregated by subject. In the past, math and Spanish language were taught in Spanish, while language arts, social studies and science were taught in English. That presented problems, Eastman said, so an advisory committee got together last spring to make the shakeup. Kindergartners and first-graders will be on a two-week rotation, and second- through fifth-graders will switch every other language arts unit.
A long way for the first day
Felix Martinez, 46, and Pablo Moreno, 33, took planes, not a school bus, to make it to Munger Mountain on time for the first day.
Moreno and Martinez were recruited from Spain by the school district this year. Moreno journeyed from Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands and Martinez came from Benasque Valley in the Pyrenees.
Both used visuals in their classrooms to help students understand where, exactly, they came from.
Martinez clustered his fourth-grade students on the floor around a carpet with a map of the world on it. He explained that his Spanish, from Spain, might be a little bit different from their Spanish from places like Mexico or Ecuador.
Moreno drew a map on the whiteboard to illustrate where the Canary Islands are. A quick game of hangman in Spanish helped warm his students up.
Moreno studied abroad in Germany as a student and wanted the same experience, but in the working world. Jackson seemed like the perfect fit.
“I love nature, and I don’t like to live in big cities,” he said. “I like small towns with personalities. From what I’ve seen I like this place. I’m very excited.”
He’s looking forward to improving his English and “working with people with a different point of view.”
“That can only enrich what you know,” Moreno said.
Martinez was drawn to Jackson for its national park and ski town culture, not unlike his hometown across the pond.
“I want to live in a place somewhere similar,” he said.
When Martinez was applying for the visiting teacher program and visa, which allows him to stay for up to three years, Utah was his first thought. He’s always wanted to teach abroad. But then he saw that Jackson was recruiting too.
“I thought, ‘I need to be there,’” Martinez said. “If we want something we fight for that. Spaniards are stubborn.”
While he thinks learning the education system here might be a bit challenging at first, he isn’t too worried about the cultural differences.
“Math is math,” Martinez said. “Kids are kids. It’s not so different.”
Before school started Martinez cemented his Jackson identity by (a) getting a car — a Subaru, no less, and (b) finding a place to live. He’s staying in a mother-in-law apartment in Melody Ranch. Moreno is also in Melody Ranch, staying with a host family while he looks for permanent housing.
Moreno arrived after Martinez, so Martinez helped him get his feet under him by setting up a bank account and getting a SIM card for his phone. The duo even went whitewater rafting with some fellow Munger Mountain teachers before school began.
Parents came to drop off their children and see the new school.
Ivan Sosa, whose youngest daughter is in fourth grade, was excited.
“It’s very nice, this school,” he said. “It’s brand new.”
But the dual immersion program is more than just a pretty building with fresh paint to Sosa. He said it’s helped his daughter connect with more Mexican friends who share her culture, as well as work on her secondary language, Spanish, that isn’t as much of a priority to learn in an English-speaking society.
It helps her communicate more with relatives back in Mexico, where he came from 24 years ago.
“Knowing two languages opens doors,” Sosa said.
His oldest daughters attended Teton County schools before the dual immersion program existed. Alison Sosa, 22, said it would have been helpful to have the program when she was a student, especially when it came to learning Spanish the proper way.
“She speaks perfectly,” Alison Sosa said of her younger sister.
Dessa Reimer, the mother of a kindergartner, a second-grader and a fourth-grader, was pleased with what she saw.
“The facility is just awesome,” Reimer said. “It’s so expansive. I think it’s going to be great.”
She’s a fan of the dual immersion program too.
“If it wasn’t for this program it wouldn’t be worth driving,” Reimer said. “This is really good public education, to get this kind of education for your tax dollars. We wouldn’t be down here if we didn’t love it.”
Kathy Lynch, who also has children in kindergarten, second grade and fourth grade, said they are flourishing in the program.
“When we travel to other countries they can carry on a conversation,” she said. “It’s amazing.”
Dana Ankeny, whose daughter is in fourth grade, said she thinks the dual immersion school is a “great idea.”
“I’m excited to see how she progresses,” she said.
In addition to the benefits of learning another language, Ankeny said, she likes the mixture of cultures her daughter is exposed to.
“They all see each other as friends more than anything else,” she said.