Wake schools highlight successful language immersion program

sbarr@newsobserver.comMay 13, 2014 

— When a group of visitors to Jeffreys Grove Elementary School walked into a kindergarten classroom Tuesday, a chorus of tiny voices immediately piped up in greeting.

“Buenos días,” the students called out, waving from where they sat on the floor.

At the front of the room, Nora Arnold sat in a chair with a stuffed animal monkey in her lap, easily fielding questions from her classmates about her show-and-tell toy. All the questions were asked and answered in Spanish.

In the school’s full immersion program, which includes one classroom each in kindergarten and first grade, students spend most of their school day learning in Spanish. All of their core subjects – including reading, writing and math – are taught in Spanish. Classes such as physical education and art are taught in English.

As they reach the end of their first year of immersion, the kindergartners chatter with ease in Spanish, which was new to most of them less than a year ago.

“It just helps me learn more things than usual,” said Nora, 6.

Ann Mailly, the mother of a first-grader in the Jeffreys Grove program, said her daughter adjusted seamlessly to the idea of immersion without fear or frustration.

“For her, school is where she goes and speaks Spanish,” she said.

Wake County school officials touted Jeffreys Grove’s success as they work to finalize a budget for 2014-15 that would expand the county’s voluntary immersion programs.

The school board last month unanimously approved the budget that calls for a Chinese language immersion program at Stough Elementary in northwest Raleigh and a Spanish immersion program at Hodge Road Elementary in Knightdale.

The $107,000 for the new programs is part of the school system’s proposed $1.3 billion operating budget for next year. The budget includes a request for $366 million in local funding from Wake County commissioners – an increase of $39.3 million compared with this year.

The commissioners are slated to consider the proposal in June, a vote that school board members have called a test of the community’s political will. The $39.3 million would go primarily to an across-the-board pay raise for school employees, but it also would help fund new programs.

‘Reinforce each other’

The full immersion program at Stough would operate much like the one at Jeffreys Grove, but with students receiving instruction in Mandarin rather than Spanish.

Students in the dual immersion program at Hodge Road would receive half of their instruction in Spanish and half in English, with native speakers of each language learning together.

School system officials said research shows the programs can provide an academic boost to students, as well as prepare them to work in an increasingly global society.

Ximena Franco, a researcher at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, said students learning two languages do so on parallel paths, so learning one language doesn’t disrupt another.

“Cognitively they are separate, but they reinforce each other,” she said.

Beth Cochran, Wake’s senior director of magnet and curriculum enhancement programs, said the programs are tailored to the needs of each school.

At Stough, the immersion program is designed to encourage families to stay at the school. More than half of the students who live in the school’s attendance area leave for other schools in the district.

The Hodge Road program also could keep families at the school, but a bigger goal is to address the needs of the 40.5 percent of students who are considered Limited English Proficient there.

Helping two populations

Collaboration between English- and Spanish-speaking students is intended to help both groups as they move between lessons taught in one language to another.

“We really feel that we can benefit both populations of kids,” Cochran said.

Debra Pearce, the principal at Hodge Road, said she has already had more than 30 families express interest in the program, meaning the school is well on its way to filling two kindergarten classes next year.

Pearce said she is confident the program will make a difference for students.

“I believe with all my heart there’s going to be higher test scores,” she said.

Staff writers Mechelle Hankerson and T. Keung Hui contributed to this report.

Barr: 919-836-4952; Twitter: @barrmsarah

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