DIA: The first fully bilingual school in Salt Lake

by PHI TRAN

¿Habla Español? No? Then you may be one of the many young Hispanics in Salt Lake City who has either forgotten their Spanish or never learned it. This was the motivation for establishing the Dual Immersion Academy, the first fully Spanish-English bilingual school in Utah.

Patricia Quijano Dark, the one of the proud founders of DIA, said she was shocked to see how quickly and easily her daughters Kathryn, 5, and Elizabeth, 7, forgot their Spanish after only a few months of attending a local public school. Dark, 41, who speaks four different languages — Spanish, English, French and Italian, said that being able to speak more than one language comes naturally to her and she could not imagine her daughters not being able to speak Spanish, their first language.

Dark believes that being bilingual is a talent that most people want to possess and those who possess this talent should preserve it. However, after looking around at the local public schools for her daughters, she found that some children were not able to communicate in their native language because everyone else spoke English. “The other schools had no diversity, no color, no stories,” Dark said. She did not see the opportunities she wanted her daughters to experience in other public schools so she created one of her own. “I thought it would be easier to open up a school. It wasn’t,” she admitted.

Dark and the school administrators did not take into account the many different cultures and socioeconomic differences and they were unprepared to handle some of the situations that arose. “Opening a school is like building an airplane in the air,” she said.

Families were coming to the staff and faculty about personal issues at home for assistance they could not provide. Dark recalls having to deal with child services a number of times. This was not the school’s purpose. However, the school administrators did not want to completely ignore these people who came to them for help so they hired a social worker as the assistant director of the school to handle these situations.

DIA also has been a target of discrimination. Dark said that she has received many statements and responses about why they should not build this school. One person in particular wrote, “Why would people want to learn Spanish when this is an English speaking country.” Dark was bewildered. She could not understand why there was so much anger and why people were so opposed to the idea of a bilingual school so much.

Despite some of the criticism DIA has encountered, Dark said there is no discouragement. In fact, there are plans to expand the school in the future.

DIA opened in September 2007 and is located at 1155 S. Glendale Drive in Salt Lake City. It has 350 students currently enrolled this year, in kindergarten through sixth grade. However, Dark said the school will add grades 7 and 8 by 2009. Sixty percent of the students attending DIA are of Hispanic descent. Every class and every subject is taught in Spanish and in English. The textbooks that are provided are printed in both English and Spanish. Each grade has two classrooms, one for teachers who speak only Spanish to the students and another for teachers who speak only English to the students. Dark said it is easier for children to learning a second language, because their minds are much more able to adapt to language development. She also said that when a child is bilingual at a young age it is 70 percent more likely that they will go to college.

One setback that Dark has been working toward resolving: adding a cafeteria to the school. Earlier this year the students ate inside a large tent that was being used as a cafeteria. However, one of the walls to the tent was blown down due to a recent snowstorm, leaving the students no other choice but to eat in their classrooms. Since lunchtime is only 30 minutes long and the teachers have to supervise the children, this leaves them with no time to prepare for the afternoon classes. DIA is appealing to the public for funding.

Nonetheless, DIA has had many accomplishments since it opened. “It’s the most successful thing I’ve done,” Dark said.

Although she believes that education is an important aspect, it was not always her focus. In addition to DIA, she has been a journalist for more than 20 years and has worked in England, Argentina, and the U.S. She is also the first woman to be hired as the executive director of the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Dark said rather than focusing on the business end of things, Dark will focus on integration.

She wants to help those who wish to start a business by introducing them to UHCC. She has formed monthly workshops so that people may converse with the owners of larger corporations. Dark said that her journalism background has definitely helped her to teach the small-business owners about networking opportunities and finding ways to improve their trade.

With all this on Dark’s plate she still finds time to dedicate to her family and to DIA. She said it is a matter of balancing everything that you care for in your life. Dark believes that if you start something you cannot give up on it and if you truly care about it you will make time for it.