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Other Views: Utah muestra el camino (Utah shows the way)

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North Dakota is too conservative to embrace language immersion programs in elementary school.

North Dakota is too landlocked to embrace the programs in elementary school.

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North Dakota is too tightfisted, parochial, insular ...

Stop right there.

Now, consider Utah.

"(W)ith hopes of preparing students for a competitive world economy, the state is building one of the largest and most ambitious school-language programs in the nation," The New York Times reported in April about Utah.

In foreign languages, "Utah now sees a highway to the world economy.

"Republicans in Salt Lake City, the state capital, have pledged millions for the program. Four years after it began, nearly half of Utah's 41 school districts offer programs in which elementary school students spend half the day learning in English and half in a foreign language. There are 14,000 students enrolled and 20,000 signed up for next year. ...

"Parents, wary at first, have rushed to enter lotteries to place their children in the programs. Some school districts have waiting lists 100 students long. Some parents drive 30 miles to bring their children to class or have even moved to be closer to an immersion school."

Landlocked Utah, by the way, "passed an English-only law in 2000 and routinely ranks last in the nation on education spending," The Times reported.

If North Dakota wants to surge past the status quo and regain national leadership in K-12 education, Utah with its pioneering language program is showing the way.

Think of it:

By the time Utah's dual-language grade-schoolers enter ninth grade, they'll be ready to take the Advanced Placement exam in their target language for college credit.

Then, the students can take either a third language in high school or college-level classes in their target language.

"We're hoping to see students who are able to nearly complete a minor in a foreign language by the time they graduate from high school," says Tristin West, a Spanish instructional specialist, in a YouTube video on Utah's program produced by the Utah Office of Education.

But unlike, say, advanced skills in science or sports, foreign-language fluency can be imparted as a matter of routine. "When our students come into kindergarten, they don't know anything different," says Marty Chen, Chinese instructional specialist, in the video.

"They just see it as, 'When I go into this classroom, I'm supposed to learn everything in Chinese.' And they just do it. ... You have to see it with your own eyes to see how good these kids are doing."

As another observer puts it, "They seem to not understand that this is supposed to be difficult." (The inspiring video can be found at tinyurl.com/ UtahDualImmersion .)

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman -- a Mandarin Chinese speaker and Republican candidate for president in 2012 -- deserves a lot of the credit for the program, observers say.

So does Howard Stephenson, the Republican state senator who sponsored Senate Bill 41 in 2008, which created the program.

"This is a real leg up in economic development, to have a population that can be fluent in speaking a multiplicity of foreign languages," Stephenson says in the video.

"It's my dream that the dual immersion programs that we have begun in our elementary schools become the norm for all students."

Stephenson, by the way, also is president of the Utah Taxpayers Association.

In North Dakota -- and Minnesota, for that matter -- it can be done.

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