The fabric of Mount Vernon is its agriculture. The soil that produces all that grain, not to mention those famous tulips, has been a constant here for more than a century.
But the demographics of that industry, and therefore, of Mount Vernon have changed wildly. The Hispanic population here has tripled in the last 25 years.
In fact, 34% of Mount Vernon’s population now identifies as Hispanic or Latino. That influx of Spanish-speaking families necessitated a seismic shift in the school system.
Namely, teaching the children in both English and Spanish. Not optional. Mandatory.
Evelyn Morse, who took over as the Principal at Madison Elementary School 15 years ago, said, “Because of our community and our population, dual language was starting up in a neighboring [Burlington] school district, and it just made sense. “
There are a lot of reasons why the program at Madison Elementary is so successful. One of the most compelling is “Bilingual Buddies.”
They pair up every student with another whose dominant language is different from their own. So if your family speaks English at home, you’ve got a bilingual buddy whose dominant language is Spanish. And if the child is struggling in that opposite-speaking class, the buddy can help, without disrupting the entire class by asking the teacher to help.
Morse explained, “The teachers truly stay true to the language of instruction. But the kids are sitting next to a bilingual buddy, so if they’re having trouble, the buddy can whisper. So in Spanish class, the Spanish-speaking kiddos are the experts, and they can help their English partners. And in English classes, the English-speaking kids are stronger, so they can help their partners, so it’s a team.”
Guillermo Linderman is a parent at Madison who loves the camaraderie the environment fosters. “It’s nice just to see how the kids interact,” he said. “The Spanish-speaking students, interacting with the [English-speaking] kids. And help each other.
“The heritage that I’m gonna give my daughter is the language. For her, just to learn a different language. It will give them a big push in the world.”
The teachers say an immeasurable benefit to the dual-language curriculum – is the impact not just on the students – but on their parents.
Nancy Payne, a 2nd-grade Madison teacher who was born in Nicaragua, said she’ most proud when “the English speaking kids - going home and saying, ‘I taught my mom how to say this word in Spanish!’ That, you know, that’s awesome.“
Leah Clayberg, another 2nd-grade teacher at Madison who taught there before they added the dual-language program, said there’s another tangible benefit. “It also brought more parent volunteers into our classroom – the Spanish-speaking community feels more comfortable because they can speak their native in our classroom, and they value that.”
Renee Warrick, who has two children at Madison, said, “The fun thing was watching the two of them. She’d come home and try to tell me everything that she’s learning, and she’s speaking in Spanish, and trying the Spanish. And then my son would come and say, that’s really good, Ali, so he’d correct her grammar. So he’d be helping her out. It’s pretty cool.
“English and Spanish are two of the top three spoken languages of the world. So broadening their horizons is an amazing thing. I think that’s an amazing gift that I can’t give to them, but this school can.”
Principal Morse added, “It’s amazing to see. In fact, if you go down to a 5th-grade classroom, you’ll see the kids doing Socratic seminars in Spanish. So they’re having debates with each other.”
In 1998, Mount Vernon was rated by one publication as the "Best Small City in America."
And that was almost a decade before they instituted the dual-language program that’s united the community even more. Madison Elementary School now has a waiting list to attend.