This might be the year Hodge Road Elementary principal Debra Pearce brushes up on her Spanish.
After all, she has 48 kindergartners doing the same.
Hodge Road began its school year last week and with that, a dual immersion Spanish program Pearce has championed for five years also began.
“No one is a bigger cheerleader for (this program) than me,” she said, despite knowing only “un poquito”– a little – Spanish.
The program has 48 students in it split into two classes. One day, a class is in an English classroom, learning and speaking in English. The next day, they alternate with a class that was in a Spanish classroom.
If studies are correct, this will eventually benefit students who already know Spanish grasp concepts better and help English-speaking students become more comfortable with a foreign language.
“For the first time, I’m seeing some Spanish-speaking students supporting English-speaking students and it’s making me feel really good about that exchange of language,” Pearce said.
“We can already see its potential.”
Fast forwarding to better scores
Kindergarten teacher Krystal Eakes is one in the pair of teachers who will work with the students in the program.
She said the program seems to already be showing signs of helping with students’ academic success.
“It meets children exactly where they are and pushes them,” she said.
The ultimate improvement in academic success and test scores was one reason Wake County and Pearce thought Hodge Road would be a good home to the program.
In the 2012-2013 school year, Hodge Road posted a 22.9 percent proficiency rate, meaning only 22.9 percent of the school’s students were testing at or above grade level.
The school also fell short of its growth targets and for more than 40 percent of the school’s students, English is not their native language.
When the proposal for the project came before the Wake County Board of Education in March, county officials said the program was a perfect fit for Hodge Road, considering its high number of students with limited English proficiency.
Pearce estimated about 52 percent of her school’s student population speaks some level of Spanish. Almost all of her Lmited English Proficiency (LEP) students speak Spanish, too.
In theory, Spanish-speaking students will be able to grasp concepts better since they will be taught in English and Spanish. At the same time, they will learn English so academic improvement does not have to be sacrificed for acquiring a new language.
“We have such a high ESL population (and) the kids who have Spanish as their native language are excited to be leaders in (the Spanish) classroom,” Eakes said.
Helping parents, too
At the same time students benefit, Pearce said the program has already proven to be a good way to get parents in the doors of the school, which has been a challenge in the past.
But already, Pearce and Eakes said they have mad more interaction with parents who may have avoided the school.
Part of that, Pearce said, is because Eakes has a native Spanish speaker as her partner. Diana Villamill, who came from Colombia, teaches the Spanish side of the program. As a native speaker and part of the teaching team, it makes it easier for Spanish-speaking parents to get information quickly and accurately.
“(Eakes and Villamill) do conferences together and are able to work through language barriers,” Pearce said. “(That barrier) may be why we struggle to get Spanish-speaking parents in the building.”
And that new pattern is carrying over to the classroom too, Eakes said.
“Already I’ve seen more parent involvement,” she said. “Parents are very curious and they want know what it looks like. I’ve already seen more parents this early in the year than I’ve seen in my last few years of teaching.”
Parents not part of the program are also interested in finding out more. When the school year started, there was a waiting list with 11 names on it and the school gets calls from parents who want to observe the classroom.
Pearce said she also gets a lot of interest from outside Hodge Road’s base attendance area. Those families, though, will have to wait, as the program is only open to the base attendance zone this year.
“I’m just happy because my population is finally getting what they need,” Pearce said.
Hiccup during planning
This year, Hodge Road’s program launched at the same time a full Chinese immersion program started at Stough Elementary in Cary. It cost the county $44,000 to launch both programs, but that money was, at one point, in danger.
During budget negotiations, it seemed as though some special programs may lose money to make up for a shortfall from the state. Even at that time, though, Pearce didn’t stop planning her school’s program.
“No one in Wake County ever told me to stop my train so I just kept with good faith, keeping my train going,” she said.
The cost to the individual school was minimal, so the county is bearing most of the financial burden.
Each program used about $22,000 this year to get started, which is expected to decrease over time because costs like acquiring instructional materials will not be needed.
Even so, Pearce knows that “the budget is the budget” and it may not get easier as the years progress.
“I’m just hoping and praying that the powers to be see the benefit and they don’t stop language funding,” she said.
That way, she might have some time to catch up with her new bilingual students.