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Melrose Leadership Academy kindergarten students Aylin Aichele, left, her twin sister Emel, and Lareina Besses sing a song for parents at a kindergarten graduation ceremony for the dual-immersion program on Wednesday, June 16, 2010, in Oakland, Calif. Half of the students are native English speakers and half are native Spanish speakers. (Jim Stevens/Staff)

OAKLAND — For some of the parents who sent their children to the new English-Spanish immersion kindergarten at Melrose Leadership Academy last August, it was a leap of faith.

Not only was this a new program, but 90 percent of the kindergarten instruction would be in Spanish — and half of the children, by design, did not know Spanish on the first day of school.

Like other parents of the school's native English speakers, Demica Everett remembers her daughter Laura Carter, 5, having a rough start. "She didn't like it at all," Everett said. "She didn't want to come to school because she didn't know what the other kids knew."

But Laura and most of her English-speaking classmates persisted, and they were soon able to adjust to the new language, their parents said. On Wednesday, after the school's promotion ceremony, Laura was singing songs in Spanish. She sings at home, too, Everett said, and loves to teach her family Spanish words.

Moyra Contreras, the founding principal, said the first year went even better than she expected. After a few weeks, the children had learned the routines and understood what their teachers were instructing them to do. After a few months, they began responding to their teachers (who never speak a word of English, even to parents) in Spanish.

"They've made tremendous progress," Contreras said. "They learned how to read in Spanish."


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The dual-immersion model used by Melrose Leadership Academy emphasizes Spanish in the early grades; more of the lessons will be taught in English each year. The students are expected to graduate eighth grade able to read, write and speak fluently in both languages.

About half of the children come from Spanish-speaking homes, and the other half — mostly white, multiracial and African-American — represent a number of the city's neighborhoods, including Maxwell Park, an area near Mills College, and Melrose.

The program shares a campus and a name with a small but more traditional middle school also run by Contreras.

Contreras has worked in Oakland schools for years, often in schools segregated by ethnicity, class and language. She said that as she looked out on the group of proud, photo-snapping parents and their children, she realized something: "It looked like Oakland."

All told, 34 children were promoted to the first grade. Three moved or transferred to other schools. As of Wednesday, 46 children were signed up for the next year's kindergarten class.

As the program adds a grade level each year, finding new teachers to fill those specialized positions will be a challenge, some parents said; the Oakland school district's staffing rules don't allow schools to recruit teachers until June or later, when all of the displaced employees have new jobs.

Vee Thomsak, a first-grade teacher in the San Lorenzo school district, said he is optimistic that the school's group of involved parents will be able to take the school where it needs to go — through advocacy, teamwork and elbow grease. Otherwise, he said, the program is so new its needs might be lost in a school district the size of Oakland's.

"Every year's going to be an adventure, really," Thomsak said.

Read Katy Murphy's Oakland schools blog at www.ibabuzz.com/education. Follow her at Twitter.com/katymurphy.