Wake expanding language immersion programs

khui@newsobserver.com sbarr@newsobserver.com mhankerson@newsobserver.comMarch 23, 2014 

Two Wake County elementary schools are getting new foreign language immersion programs this fall that are supposed to meet the schools’ unique needs and to expand efforts to make children bilingual.

Starting in the 2014-15 school year, students at Stough Elementary School in northwest Raleigh will have the option of spending most of the day speaking in Mandarin Chinese under a new language immersion program. In eastern Wake County, at Hodge Road Elementary School in Knightdale, students will be able to take half their classes in Spanish under a new dual language immersion program.

The programs, costing $107,484, were part of the new budget proposal unveiled last week by Superintendent Jim Merrill, who is asking the Wake County Board of Commissioners for a $39 million increase in funding.

“The demand for bilingual employees throughout the world is increasing,” Beth Cochran, Wake’s senior director of magnet and curriculum enhancement programs, told school board members last week. “Throughout the world, knowing more than one language has become the norm rather than the exception.”

Immersion programs, in which students spend half or more of their school day learning a foreign language, are rising in popularity. According to Wake, there are 77 language immersion programs in North Carolina public and private schools this school year.

The only one in the Wake school system is a Spanish immersion program at Jeffreys Grove Elementary School in north Raleigh. Students take their core subjects, which include literacy, math, social studies and science, in Spanish. They take their special classes in English.

Jeffreys Grove Principal Lisa Cruz said the program has been well received by families at the school. Now in its second year, the program includes kindergarten and first grade students. As with Stough and Hodge Road, families who don’t want the immersion program can choose to be in classes where English remains the primary language for the day.

Cruz said it’s been impressive to watch kindergarteners who enter the school without speaking any Spanish become so comfortable with the language that they can use it to express themselves by the middle of the year.

“I think it’s an incredible gift to give a child a second language,” she said.

Kindergarten aims for Chinese immersion

A similar approach is proposed for Stough, where Chinese would be the language used for most of the school day for kindergarten students whose parents opt into the program. Stough Principal Cheryl Stidham said she hopes to fill at least one kindergarten immersion class this fall.

The program would add a grade each year as students progress through the school. Beginning in second grade, students also would participate in English language arts classes.

The curriculum at Stough, part of the Wake’s Global Schools program, already emphasizes world cultures, religions, literature, history and language. The immersion program would build on the momentum Stough has built for taking an international perspective in all areas, according to Stidham.

“We are really excited about this opportunity,” she said. “Our whole community has embraced our global theme.”

Wake officials said that since China is a major player in the global economy, it makes sense for students to learn the language.

“Business leaders are looking for people who can speak Chinese and operate successfully in a Chinese cultural context,” Cochran said.

But the new program would serve another purpose. More than half of the students who live in Stough’s attendance area, near Crabtree Valley Mall, opt to attend other schools in the district. Cochran told school board members that “a Chinese immersion program could keep some of those students from leaving.”

Goal is half Spanish, half English speakers

Hodge Road faces a similar challenge of families opting out. Debra Pearce, Hodge Road’s principal, told board members the new Spanish immersion program might keep students at the school who might otherwise choose an alternative such as a magnet school.

Cochran cited other reasons for adding the program to Hodge Road, including the low percentage – 22.9 percent – of students who passed state exams last school year. At 40.5 percent, Hodge Road also has the highest percentage of any school in Wake of students who are considered Limited English Proficient.

“Hodge Road has several academic challenges,” Cochran said.

With students learning half their core courses in Spanish, Cochran said the dual immersion program would be a “perfect match” for Hodge Road’s Spanish-speaking students. Pearce estimated about 52 percent of her school’s student population speaks some level of Spanish. Almost all of her LEP students speak Spanish, too.

“My students are not proficient in a language and so the dual immersion program would be building their language in Spanish at the same time they would be building their language in English,” said Pearce, who has been discussing the possibility of the program for the past two years.

“I’m elated that my children are going to have this opportunity,” Pearce said.

But school officials say the program is also good for non-Spanish speaking students as it will increase their proficiency in the second-most spoken language in the United States.

The goal would be to have a 50/50 split in Hodge’s program between Spanish and non-Spanish native speakers. As with Stough, the program would only start this fall with kindergarten students who opt in and would add a grade level each year.

School board members said staff needs to try to keep Hodge’s program from becoming too populated with Hispanic students. But the overall reception to both new programs was positive.

“I think this is a great idea,” school board member Keith Sutton said.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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