Dose of the future: Cale Elementary’s dual language program leads students into the 21st century

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Third grade teacher Kimberly Schwartz leads students in a Spanish lesson as part of Cale Elementary’s dual immersion program. Photo: Eze Amos Third grade teacher Kimberly Schwartz leads students in a Spanish lesson as part of Cale Elementary’s dual immersion program. Photo: Eze Amos

Five years ago, Cale Elementary School principal Lisa Jones instituted a Foreign Language in the Elementary Schools program for her incoming class of kindergarteners and rising first- and second-graders. For three years, offerings featured typical FLES programming—that is, 120 minutes a week of instruction in Spanish. However, as Jones saw it, that wasn’t enough.

“By the time they reach fifth grade, on average, children who’ve participated in a FLES program will have a good working proficiency of the second language,” she says. “And we were proud that our students had gained access to that resource. But research shows, it’s immersion that produces true fluency.”

Thus, two years ago, with the backing of the Albemarle County School Board, Jones introduced a voluntary Two-Way Immersion Dual Language program. Families of children in grades K through three were given the option of having their children
be involved. Meanwhile, participating students spent half the day studying in Spanish, the other half in English. “The dual language program uses two languages for literacy and content instruction,” explains Jones. “It provides the same academic content and addresses the same standards as other educational curriculum, only, instruction is in the partner language 50 percent of the time.” In other words, for half the day, students spend their classroom hours reading, writing, learning and conversing in Spanish.

While students can opt out of the program, the idea is for them to stick with it through at least fifth grade, and preferably beyond. “This approach produces students that are fluent in two languages,” says Jones. “When they graduate from fifth grade and enter middle school, they’ll be equipped with a skill-set—they will be able to read, write, listen and speak in two languages.”

Approaching its third year, Cale’s dual immersion program is growing. Expanded to include fourth- and fifth-graders, enrollment has increased to 60 students. In third to fourth grade, four classrooms are devoted to the program, while in fourth to fifth grade, there are two. Each classroom features two teachers—one managing Spanish instruction, the other English. Of the participating students, about half speak Spanish as their native language. According to Jones, everyone benefits. “Research shows that, for non-native English speakers, partial instruction in the native language helps them learn the new one faster and more efficiently,” she says. “Meanwhile, for English-speaking students, learning the second language early on increases their ability to master it.” Furthermore, having access to peers who are native speakers of the desired second language means students can practice their skills beyond the classroom.

Citing bilingualism as the global norm, and monolingualism as the new illiteracy for the 21st century, Jones says Cale’s program falls on the right side of progress. “On the one hand, research shows studying a second language aids children’s cognitive development,” she says. “On the other, if students can speak fluent Spanish and English, they can communicate with around 80 percent of the world’s population, or 5.7 billion people. In both cases, we believe that’s a win.”

Budding trend

Immersive, two-way dual language education in the U.S. was developed nearly 40 years ago. Since then, its popularity has grown immensely. During the first two decades of implementation, the number of programs remained relatively low—in the mid-’80s, just 30 were known to be in existence. However, in the last 15 years, that number has risen dramatically. In a recent study conducted by the Center for Applied Linguistics, 315 programs were documented, most of them Spanish/English programs in public elementary schools. EW

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