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South Valley Riverton Journal

Bluffdale Elementary Portuguese Immersion Program thrives in its eighth year

Jun 06, 2023 08:55AM ● By Morgan Olsen

First grade immersion students learn in Jessica Bell’Aver’s class at Bluffdale Elementary. (Morgan Olsen/City Journals)

Eight years ago, Bluffdale Elementary became one of a handful of schools throughout the state to offer a Portuguese Immersion program for students in first through sixth grade.

“The immersion program was started because of a need in the community,” Principal Staci Moore said. “The community shared their desires for a Portuguese immersion program eight years ago and the district made it happen. There were already Spanish and Chinese programs nearby so it was decided that, since there was a lot of desire to have a Portuguese immersion program in the Jordan School District, Bluffdale Elementary would be the place.”

Each grade level is made up of two classes of 28 students each, allowing for 56 Portuguese immersion students in each grade from first thru sixth grade. Each class spends half of the day focusing on studies in English and the other half of the day learning only in Portuguese. 

“Our Portuguese teachers are all native, from Brazil,” Moore said. “They usually come as a guest teacher and they have to have their certification. They can stay here on one work visa for three years and then most choose to renew and continue teaching with us. We love that each of our Portuguese teachers are native because it helps students learn the language and culture authentically.”

Moore says that there never seems to be a shortage of students and families who are interested in enrolling in the program each year. 

“We’ve been really fortunate here because, with the Portuguese language, there is so much interest,” she said. “I wish we had more slots available to accommodate every family that wants their kids to be in the program.”

Students are required to begin the program in first grade as the first year is crucial in developing the foundational skills needed to learn the language fluently.

“The kids always enter the program in first grade so they can get all the foundational skills,” Moore said. “The biggest hurdle is that families want to start later than first grade but, unless they are transferring to us from another Portuguese program in the state, they can’t join the program after the first-grade year.”

Students in the Portuguese Immersion program learn everything students in a regular classroom learn, but at a somewhat accelerated pace in order to cover all of the material each year.

“The Portuguese Immersion program is not any different than learning in a regular classroom,” Moore said. “They have to learn things in a smaller amount of time because they make that switch from English to Portuguese halfway through the day. In some ways it’s more accelerated because there’s a lot to get in instructionally in those few hours they have with each teacher.”

The Portuguese teachers enjoy their time seeing these students progress through their classes each year as they teach them entirely in Portuguese each day.

“I teach first grade so I can see a lot of growth in the students,” Jessica Bell’Aver said, a Portuguese teacher at Bluffdale Elementary. “They come to me with zero knowledge of Portuguese and leave knowing how to say complete sentences. I love to see these kids motivated in what they’re learning. They’re able to use language as a tool and that’s very rewarding.”

Moore says that one of the most positive impacts of the Portuguese Immersion program is bringing the Portuguese community into the school and the entire school embracing it. Students will put into practice all they have learned about Brazil in an end-of-year celebration, called Brazilandia. It is run by the sixth graders in the immersion program and will include English-only students this year, as well. 

“Brazilandia is a big celebration of what the immersion students have learned during the year, and we are working hard to prepare fun Portuguese games and activities,” Bell’Aver said. “During the event, the students will speak only in Portuguese and answer certain questions in Portuguese in order to play the games. They also get to sample authentic Brazilian food and experience the culture. The goal of Brazilandia is to get students outside the classroom speaking the language in a different context so they can apply what they’ve learned.”

For families and students interested in beginning the Portuguese Immersion program at Bluffdale Elementary, the application process begins in January preceding the school year in which the student enters first grade.

“Our applications are due at the end of February, and we then go through a lottery process,” Moore said. “Boundary students and students with siblings in the program are taken first. After that, we look at whether or not they are in district boundaries. Those in district boundaries get priority over those who aren’t. We then create the wait list and usually one or two spots open up on that by the time the school year starts.” 

The Portuguese Immersion program is well-loved by its dedicated students and teachers.

“When I first got here from Brazil, I wanted there to be more Portuguese schools,” said Lucas, a second grader at Bluffdale Elementary. “I’m glad I found this program. My favorite part is learning Portuguese all the time.”

First graders begin learning subjects like science in Portuguese, and it is rewarding for them to learn about some of their favorite subjects as they learn this new language.

“My favorite subject is science,” said Adam, a first grader at Bluffdale Elementary. “I think it’s cool that we get to learn science in Portuguese.”

Many students like that they get to learn with the same students from first through sixth grade as they all go through the program together. 

“I remember being really scared when I started the program in first grade because I wasn’t allowed to speak English - I could only speak Portuguese,” said Carter, a sixth grader at Bluffdale Elementary. “But it ended up being fine and it helped me learn it faster because it’s all I could speak. Now, I’m able to automatically translate in my head from Portuguese to English and I don’t even have to think about it. I’m excited that, going into seventh grade next year, I’ll know everyone in my Portuguese class since we’ve all been together since first grade.”

Once students have completed the elementary portion of the immersion program, they are considered fluent in an elementary setting, and they can enroll in a Portuguese class at the corresponding middle school as they move into seventh grade. 

“Students who complete the program through sixth grade can continue the program at Hidden Valley Middle School,” Moore said. “By the time they are done with middle school they could essentially go to Brazil and carry on a conversation.”

One parent, Rachelle De Paula, has two students in the Portuguese Immersion program - one in third grade and another in seventh grade. 

“It’s amazing how fast they learn the language and know it so well,” De Paula said. “I wanted to enroll them for their brains to be challenged as they learn another language. Many parents worry about whether or not they will be able to help their kids with homework if they don’t know the language, but the teachers are great and are always there to help. They do most of the work at school and the teachers really help them understand.”

Moore loves to see these students progress during their time in the program and is impressed by their confidence in speaking the language by the time they are in sixth grade.

“I absolutely love going from first grade and hearing these young kids speaking this language and then popping into a sixth grade classroom and hearing the progress they’ve made,” she said. “It’s an amazing progression in five years. They can speak full sentences and feel confident in what they are saying and understanding and it’s amazing to watch. They light up from that confidence in the progress that they are making.” λ