So much of the Johnston County education conversation gets bogged down in the gap between perception and reality.
Numbers from the state’s Department of Public Instruction tell one story, rosy for some schools, grim for others, while the school district says the true gains in the classroom don’t make it into the state’s spreadsheet.
In its SPLASH Spanish-language-immersion program, the Johnston County school system seems to have found an objective, quantifiable success. Elementary students enrolled in the dual-language curriculum dramatically outperform their peers in traditional classes, sometimes achieving proficiency levels two or three times those of traditional students, according to data from the school system.
“The difference in proficiency is staggering,” said Suzanne Mitchell, Selma Elementary School principal.
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“Staggering” appears to be a fair characterization. Last year, 85 percent of dual-language students at Selma performed at or above grade level on state tests. Just 41 percent of traditional students did so.
The program started at Selma Elementary in 2007 with one class of 24 students. The county expanded it to Cooper Elementary in Clayton in 2012 and Polenta Elementary in the Cleveland community in 2014. Two years ago, as Selma Elementary students graduated to middle school, the program followed them to Selma Middle, focusing on science and social studies.
Students in SPLASH alternate between Spanish and English language instruction on a daily basis, learning math and reading completely in one language one day and in the other language the next day. Clearly, the program has become the standard at Selma Elementary, as Mitchell noted only three kindergarteners are in traditional classes this year. Selma Elementary currently has 20 SPLASH classes from kindergarten to fourth grade.
“We held our ground for the next few years to see what was going to happen when testing started,” Mitchell said about maintaining enrollments in the early years of the program. “The students have exceeded our wildest dreams. The SPLASH program has been a phenomenal success at Selma Elementary.”
The school system tracked the progress of some students who took part in the program and compared their proficiency levels through the eighth grade. It was a small sample size of 15, compared to 125 traditional-only eighth-graders at Selma Middle. But 66.7 percent of SPLASH students scored at or above grade level on the state tests; just 25.6 percent of traditional students did.
“We wanted to see how students did even if they were only in the program a couple years, maybe only one year, but track them out to see if there were any residual benefits for being in dual language,” Mitchell said. “And I think you can see from that data, it’s very clear that there is. Students that have been in dual language outperform traditional students even years out, whether they’re still in the program or not.”
Mitchell said students at Cooper are just now reaching testing age, and the school district will soon learn if the program’s successes extend across the county.
Dual-language immersion is making a difference, so why doesn’t every school have it? Johnston Superintendent Ross Renfrow said mainly costs stand in the way; the program is expensive.
“We are excited about the implications,” Renfrow said of the test results. “Culture trumps strategy, and you’ve got a culture there where people are taking ownership and they believe they can achieve and they can be as good as anybody.”
Recently, Cooper Elementary held a SPLASH orientation for parents, detailing the results from Selma Elementary and offering tips for supporting dual-language students. There were a few comments from parents wishing the program was around when they were in school.
“Our society is so culturally integrated now, and I think it’s best to start a child learning Spanish from kindergarten all the way up, so she’ll be very fluent once she gets older,” Unika Valentine said of putting her daughter in the Cooper program. “It can really prepare her for a career down the road.”