For Valeria Sentillo, conversations with her mom often start in Spanish. But as the ninth-grader tries to find the right words to explain things, she sometimes switches to “Spanglish,” a blend of her first and second languages.

“She wants me to speak in either Spanish or English, not both,” ­Sentillo said.

So Sentillo’s mother was happy when her daughter enrolled in the Spanish for Native Speakers class at West Junior High School in the Shakopee district. The yearlong elective class, now in its fourth year, aims to help Latino ninth-graders become more literate in their first language, Spanish, so they’ll be stronger academically in both languages.

For teacher Amanda Marek, who is licensed to teach both Spanish and language arts, the class makes sense for many reasons.

“There’s a lot of research to support that a student can’t really be literate in a second language until they’re literate in a first language,” Marek said.

Though all 24 students in the class speak Spanish as their first language and at least occasionally at home, Marek said their Spanish skill levels “span the gamut” coming into the class.

“Some of them I’m teaching phonics in Spanish; some are pretty fluent and literate, but they need to be practicing literacy in their native language,” Marek said.

The course helps students learn academic vocabulary in Spanish so they can be truly bilingual, an advantage in college and their future careers, Marek said. Students also build reading, writing and grammar skills and give oral presentations.

There’s also a lot of spelling practice, because bilingual students often use English rules to spell Spanish words and vice versa, Marek said.

In addition, the class has a strong cultural element because the students share a similar background, Marek said. That element is fostered through celebrating holidays like El Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) and Three Kings Day, as well as through curriculum choices. For example, students read novels and poems written by Spanish-speaking authors, mostly from Mexico and Latin America.

This allows students to analyze both their own culture and culture more generally, so they can better understand Minne­sotan and American perspectives. That way, “they can assimilate where appropriate without letting go of their own roots,” Marek said.

“It’s a lot of fun, because everyone already knows each other and we can connect on a lot of things,” Sentillo said. “We all participate a lot.”

The class began four years ago when the world languages department at the junior high saw a need and the administration supported it, said Jayne Gibson, the district’s director of teaching and learning.

“They recognized that they had a number of students that were first-language Spanish speakers that were struggling in English,” Gibson said. “It really was a grass-roots initiative from the teachers who were seeing the challenges students were facing.”

Marek was part of that effort. Because of her dual licensure and knowledge of bilingual education, she was an ideal person to teach the class, Gibson said.

Students are enthusiastic about the class, Marek said, though the content isn’t always easy.

“It’s challenging — you’re used to talking, reading and writing in English,” said student Ruben Carrasco. “Overall, just in learning and speaking the language, I think I’m better” now taking the class.

Parents, too, appreciate that their kids can speak and read Spanish at a higher level and are taking an added interest in their culture, Marek said. “I get a lot of hugs,” she added.

More classes to come

This year a section of the class was added at East Junior High for the first time, and next year the plan is to teach it at the high school, said Assistant Superintendent John Bezek. The class also will be offered to eighth-graders next year.

Though such classes are relatively rare in the metro area, Bezek said that the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale district, where he was the high school principal, began offering a class for native Spanish speakers last year.

“I think there are pockets of people doing things like this,” Bezek said. “You have to have a person with the passion that wants to get it started — and the skill set.”

Marek believes that more bilingual education in Minnesota may help with the achievement gap between Latino students and their white peers.

Besides helping students with reading fluency and test scores, the class affirms students’ culture and language, which can help them succeed in school.

“Students really enjoy a lot of the cultural stuff we do,” Marek said. “Creating a place in the school where they can connect what they’ve experienced at home to what they’re learning in school is hugely important.”