Children run through the school playground, laughing as they climb up the ladder to the top of the slide and race to see who can make it to the swing-set first. People passing by can hear a mixture of English and Spanish filling the air, and children from a variety of cultural backgrounds easily slip back and forth between the two languages to communicate.

This is the type of scene USD 373 board member Carol Sue Stayrook Hobbs envisions in Newton's future. She believes there are multiple benefits of learning another language at an early age, and she has been interested in the idea of developing a bilingual elementary school in Newton for several years. Although that idea still is in the discussion stage, she said knowing more than one language may become a vital skill for students.

"We're a more global world," she said. "More and more people in the world know at least two languages, if not more. ... We need to be allowing our children to have that opportunity sooner."

As more companies seek to expand internationally, they will be looking for employees who can speak multiple languages, Stayrook Hobbs said. Unfortunately, the United States may already be a little behind the game. In other countries, many people speak both their native language and English, and maybe even add a third language. Having a bilingual elementary school could help to give Newton students an advantage.

"This is an educational opportunity to help keep them competitive in the job market," Stayrook Hobbs said.

Learning another language also strengthens a student's brain function and can even help with other subjects, including English grammar. And it's important to start early it's easier to learn a new language as a child, and if students wait until high school to take a foreign language class, it may be too late, she said.

However, if students learn one language, such as Spanish, when they're young, it can be simpler to pick up another language, such as French or Italian, later on.

A bilingual future

Stayrook Hobbs believes having a bilingual English/Spanish school makes the most sense for Newton.

Although she isn't sure yet what a bilingual set-up might look like in Newton, she said there are several ways to go about incorporating another language into the curriculum. A class on math or science could be taught in Spanish, and children could learn to use the metric system, a form of measurement used in many parts of the world outside the United States. She said perhaps half of the class time during a school day could be in Spanish, and half the time in English.

Instead of switching an entire elementary school right away, Stayrook Hobbs said administrators could introduce bilingual instruction just in the kindergarten class the first year. Then, when those kindergartners moved up to first grade, they'd continue bilingual education, and then the new class of kindergartners would also start the bilingual curriculum. This way, administrators could "build through the school" one class at a time until eventually all grades were bilingual.

She said having a bilingual school could help a variety of students, including those whose first language is not English.

For a person who has been thrown into an English-language society, it can be challenging to adapt to a new culture and a new way of communication, she said. She would like to see children from different cultural backgrounds learning to teach each other. Students who speak Spanish at home could help their classmates learn Spanish, and students who speak English at home could help classmates who don't speak English as fluently. It could be a chance for students to build self-esteem and self-confidence, and share their unique cultural traditions, Stayrook Hobbs said.

Challenges and opportunities

Stayrook Hobbs said the biggest challenge involved in having a bilingual school in Newton is the same challenge that's impacting many school programs: funding. In order to work, the bilingual program would have to operate with little or no extra costs to the district.

Fellow school board member Barbara Bunting who was able to tour a bilingual school in Wichita encourages community members to think creatively about how to bring a bilingual curriculum to Newton, and to share their thoughts about the program with school administrators. She wants to look for ways to use current resources and to brainstorm solutions to challenges that may arise.

"As a board of education member, I am an advocate of education but accountable to our community patrons," she said. "What do you think? ... You can shape the future (life) of a child, the direction of our district and the quality of our community."

Stayrook Hobbs hopes community members will respond to the idea of dual language learning and that a bilingual curriculum will one day be a part of Newton schools.

"We embrace diversity here, and to have language as another way that we embrace that diversity, that would be great," she said.