Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has 22 dual-language/immersion programs at seven schools. The programs offer five languages, with four schools dedicated to Spanish, including two that are new this year at Huntingtowne Farms IB World School and Starmount Academy of Excellence.
"Dual language is a proven best practice," said Charlotte Nadja Trez, executive director of English Learner Services. Research shows that English Learners, white native English speakers and African-American students in dual-language classrooms score significantly higher on state tests and norm-referenced tests than do students in English mainstream classrooms. Dual-language students also have increased engagement and gain cognitive benefits, such as problem-solving skills and an increase in creativity.
Huntingtowne Farms and Starmount have started the programs with two classes of kindergartners who receive 90 percent of their instruction in Spanish and 10 percent in English. The percentages will change to half-Spanish, half-English instruction when the students move to first grade. The programs are modeled on the programs at Collinswood and Oaklawn language academies. The challenge to having a successful program is the same: finding high quality materials and teachers who not only speak the language, but also can teach in the language, Trez said.
Huntingtowne Farms has been an International Baccalaureate school since 2009. The school began holding community meetings in 2012 to explore the interests of neighborhood families and ways to become a premier IB school. After many conversations and much research, a dual-language program was found to be the right fit.
"We have the only IB and dual-language school in the region," said Principal Carolyn Rodd. "All students benefit from a dual-language program – they achieve higher academically and it's proven to be successful across all settings. We have three goals for students: to be bilingual, biliterate and multicultural, which marry beautifully with IB."
Kindergartners enrolled at Huntingtowne Farms were eligible for an internal lottery that filled the dual-language program. The staff wrote their own units of study and had to meet IB standards. Students have two teachers – one for Spanish instruction, one for English – to avoid confusion. Teachers use a variety of strategies, including adding hand motions and using real-world experiences, such as a nature trail visit, to reinforce vocabulary.
Dr. Sharon Jones said Huntingtowne Farms was her family's first choice for her 6-year-old son, Ethan. She was impressed with the IB program, the in-depth approach to learning and the research showing the benefits of students learning a language at a young age.
"I'm a computer science teacher and a programmer and for me, learning a foreign language is like learning a program," Dr. Jones said. "Once you learn the syntax, it helps you move on to other things. My son's little brain is a sponge and if he can learn this at 6, it's just a win-win in all categories."
Jones' husband had questioned whether being in a dual-language program would put their son behind in reading but she said the learning evens out by the third grade. She said she was also excited when she saw a friend's fourth-grader, who attends Oaklawn, helping with a Spanish translation.
"I got goose bumps and thought, 'That's what's going to happen with Ethan," she said. "It's like a switch went off. It's already so interesting to watch Ethan, loving to learn to read, watching him flip from Spanish to English and the empathy he has for the culture. He's absorbing everything and comes home and tells us about it."
Starmount Principal Nancy Martinez said she worked with Rodd on starting dual-language programs. The school was reopened in 2015 with students who had attended Huntingtowne Farms and is about 70 percent Hispanic. The dual-language program had a waiting list at the beginning of the year. Next year, she said the school will apply to be a partial magnet in the 2019-2020 school year.
"Ever since I came to North Carolina, this has been my vision," Martinez said. "Dual-language is the only research-based approach to reduce or eliminate the achievement gap for Latinos."
Martinez said she opted for an existing curriculum rather than creating one. Each class has one teacher who teaches in both Spanish and English, and they have professional development sessions every quarter. Martinez said staffing is always challenging and when a teacher leaves, she fills the vacancy with a bilingual teacher.
The students in the dual-language program were in pre-kindergarten last year, but instruction in the federal program is only in English. Materials are provided in Spanish so that students can get exposure to the language.
"Our students' main language at home is Spanish, but they speak English to each other," said Natalia Gaviria, who teaches one of the dual-language classes. "The whole thought is to strengthen their home language to give them a good foundation. You will see the difference in third grade when there is a lot of comprehension."
Martinez said parents' main concern was that their children would learn English but they are seeing how students are learning both languages. She said that even though Starmount is not a magnet school, they have parents sign a contract to spend at least 35 minutes each day doing homework with their children in either language.
"It will be interesting to track the data through the years," Martinez said. "This is something that is a win-win for everybody. If you can unlock that power of language early on, why deprive our students of those pathways?"
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