By KATIE WATTS / Petaluma Towns Correspondent

Do you speak English? Habla Español?

Loma Vista’s 220 students can answer that question in both languages. Half are English language speakers, the others Spanish speakers, all of whom attend classes together, learning both languages.

As the program enters its fifth year, it is housed in the former Bernard Eldredge Elementary School and is part of the Old Adobe Union School District. Its first four years were spent as part of Miwok Elementary School.

“We start in kindergarten with 90 percent of instruction in Spanish, 10 percent in English,” said Principal Carlos Ulloa. “Each year increases by 10 percent of English instruction. By the time students are in fourth grade, instruction is 50-50.”

Children are hard-wired to learn multiple languages, he said. “When they begin the program in kindergarten, they’re able to learn the language at a younger age with native fluency.”

The school now has kindergarten through fourth grade classes, adding a class each year as the original kindergarteners are promoted. At sixth grade they will have the option of continuing through eighth grade or attending Kenilworth Junior High.

Ulloa, 45, has been an educator for 23 years and joined the program in January. “One of my personal and professional goals is to support the growth of dual immersion throughout country,” he said.

Loma Vista is the county’s third dual immersion school, with a fourth, Cesar Chavez Language Academy, opening this month in Santa Rosa. (The first two were Cali Calmecac in Windsor and Flowery in Sonoma.)

California has more than 300 dual immersion schools, and in San Francisco, they include Mandarin-English and English-Tagalog programs.

“It’s modeled on programs worldwide,” said teacher Heidi Bell.

Parents do not have to be bilingual to enroll their children at Loma Vista, but Ulloa said “parents often end up taking English or Spanish classes to model for their children the value of speaking two languages.”

Bell said her students learn from the program to think outside box. “When they’re using two different languages, they know there’s more than one way to say something,” she said. “With that, they know there’s more than one way to solve a problem. It opens them up to a variety of strategies, gives them wider opportunities for life.”

She also finds that dual immersion students are more empathetic. “Students are paired, English speaker and Spanish speaker, working together. When it’s Spanish time, the Spanish speaker is the model and that child shines. Then when it’s English time, it’s the opposite. Each one experiences being the teacher and then being the student, working together to understand what the teachers are teaching.”

Being bilingual breaks down barriers and builds bridges to other cultures, said Bell, who has two children in the program. Plus there’s a financial incentive.

“One reason I want them to be bilingual in Spanish in California is the chances of finding work here increase tremendously,” she said.

Loma Vista’s goal is to eventually offer three languages, Ulloa said.

The school’s new name, Loma Vista, means beautiful view in Spanish, a nod to the spectacular view of the hills from the former Bernard Eldredge Elementary.

To honor the legacy of its namesake as an early supporter of the Old Adobe district, a dedication will be held in the school garden in his memory and that of previous students.

Staff, faculty and students were invited to submit potential names for the new school, but only students were allowed to select the school mascot.

They decided to retain the Bears, Ulloa said, “a nice connection to the past.”