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Garden Garden Unified School District program developing bilingual children at a young age

Teacher and her students at John Murdy Elementary during their Vietnamese lesson. (Photo Courtesy: Abby Milone)

GARDEN GROVE, Calif. (NV) – Madison Ly is just 4 years old, but her parents decided it’s never too young to learn a second language.

So when she started kindergarten this fall, Madison’s parents signed her up for the Vietnamese dual-language program in its inaugural year at Garden Grove Unified School District’s John A. Murdy Elementary School.

Just a few weeks into the school year, Madison already is showing progress with her Vietnamese abilities at home, said her mother, Kelly Nguyen.

“She is more reactive to her grandmother, who is babysitting her while we work,” Nguyen said. “She sings ‘kìa con bướm vàng, này, nọ (‘Oh yellow butterflies, this and that’.)

The dual-language program is being offered in two kindergarten classes with a combined 34 pupils age 4 and 5, said Marcie Griffith, the principal at Murdy.

Two teachers rotate among the two classes in what is known as the 50-50 model. One teacher teaches all day in English, the other all day in Vietnamese. One class learns in English in the morning and Vietnamese in the afternoon. The other class does the opposite.

The program is a “natural fit for us,” Griffith said, adding 72 percent of her school’s students are Vietnamese and parents and the community had expressed interest in such a program. “Everything just aligns perfectly.”

A generation ago, schools in California offered instruction in students’ native languages, particularly Spanish. In 1998, a large majority — 61.3 percent — of California voters approved Proposition 227, which required all public school instruction be conducted in English.

But in November 2016, with the passage of Proposition 58, California schools can teach in a foreign language without having to apply for a waiver, said Sara Wescott, assistant superintendent for elementary schools of the Garden Grove district.

The introduction of the program at Murdy was spearheaded by the Garden Grove school board.

“We had strong board members like Bảo Nguyễn, also ex-mayor of Garden Grove city, who liked the program and wanted to advocate for it,” said Nguyễn Quốc Lân, the current president of the Garden Grove Unified School District board of education.

Garden Grove is believed to be the second school district in Orange County, and the fourth in the nation, to offer a Vietnamese dual-language program. The trailblazer was the neighboring Westminster School District, which has offered such a program since 2015 at DeMille Elementary School.

DeMille’s principal, Shannon Villanueva, said the school now has three kindergarten, two first-grade and three second-grade classrooms to teach under the 50-50 format.

Back at Murdy, Kelly Nguyen said she likes what she has seen so far from the program.

“Before, when her bà ngoại (maternal grandmother) told her to come here (lại đây với bà), or khoanh tay chào bà (saying hello grandma or goodbye grandma while folding arms), she didn’t understand and didn’t do it. But now, she understands and she says chào bà while folding her arms. Small things like that.

“Eight years from now, I don’t know what the outcome would be, but right now the relationship between my daughter and my mother has improved.”