Tharrington Primary School recently gave a lengthy update to the Mount Airy Board of Education on its groundbreaking dual-language immersion program.
The board heard from kindergarten teacher Nora Santillan how the first semester went in the new Language Leaders program.
Santillan, who hails from Argentina, said she speaks only Spanish to the students in her classroom. Of the 26 children in the program, only six are Hispanic, so the other 20 were basically starting from scratch, she explained.
Board member Kate Appler asked if the students and parents seemed to like Language Leaders and would there be enough interest to keep it going.
Superintendent Greg Little said there were so many families interested that the school held a lottery to see who got into the class and there’s a waiting list if anyone drops out.
Will there be a lottery for next year’s kindergarten class, asked Wendy Carriker, board chairman.
The lottery will be held the second week in March, said Little, who recently accepted another position in South Carolina.
On its website, Mount Airy City Schools says it chose dual-language immersion “to provide students with an opportunity to think critically and innovatively solve problems in two languages. Dual-language programs, also known as two-way immersion programs, allow students to develop proficiency in two languages by receiving North Carolina Standard Course of Study in English and Spanish.”
The school systems believes that children who learn two languages tend to develop greater cognitive flexibility, demonstrate increased attention control, better memory, and superior problem-solving skills as well as enhanced understanding of their primary language.
“Learning a second language develops strong thinking and reasoning skills essential in math and science,” MACS states on its website. “Language Immersion students are better prepared for the global community and job markets where a second language is an asset.”
Some of the parents of the inaugural students have praised the class.
Jodi Cox said, “The dual-language immersion program has been such a blessing in my daughter’s life. When … she was accepted into the program, I was both excited and scared about what lay ahead. Boy, it was such a leap of faith, but I am so glad my husband and I decided to accept the opening. Our daughter loves the program. She is excited about learning and looks forward to school every day. She is thriving. I am so excited to see what the future holds for her because of this program.”
Little pointed out that some of the students in this class already have reached end-of-year goals by February.
“As a father, DLI has been unbelievable,” said Little. “It has been everything we talked about a year ago.”
Santillan shared a video from the classroom where kids start off learning some basic words and children’s songs to get familiar with Spanish. By the end of 2015, the children were speaking the language and even reading sentences.
Being that this is a new offering, there was no existing lesson plan to use, no guidelines in place, said the teacher. She had to develop pretty much everything on her own.
There are cities where dual-language immersion exists, but often those are in places with a heavy Hispanic population, she told the board. There are many kids who already speak both languages, but here 77 percent of the kids knew nothing back in August.
One pleasant surprise has been the development of leadership traits in the six Mexican girls in the class, according to Santillan. Since the teacher and her two teaching assistants don’t speak any English, the girls have often taken the lead to try to help their classmates understand.
Of course, there have been some issues, just because of regional differences and cultures, she said. Santillan comes from Argentina and her two TAs are from Colombia, so how they grew up and the phrasings they learned have some differences from Mexican families.
If Santillan didn’t speak English and the kids didn’t know any Spanish at the start of the year, how did any learning take place in those first weeks?
Pictures and objects are a good place to start, she said. Cognitively guided instruction is when the kids can use something they already know to understand the Spanish lesson. Hold up a photograph of a dog and say “perro” and the kids learn.
However, that plan backfired last week when she tried to draw an animal to talk about Groundhog Day.
“They kept saying, ‘It’s a rat! It’s a rat!” she said with a laugh.
As for reading words, Santillan found an interesting fact. Children who already had at least a bit of training in reading English words picked up the Spanish words the quickest.
On mid-year exams, about 85 percent of the kids were at a proficient level in each of the categories.
In reading proficiency, 23 of the 26 kids did well, two were borderline and only one was struggling.
Not only are they learning the language, the children are picking up the pronunciation, Santillan said.
Teach a high school boy Spanish, and he can learn the words, but he still says them with an American accent, she said. Teach kindergarten students, and the children sound like native speakers.
If these same children were to stay in a dual-language environment throughout elementary grades, then the goal is to have them at a third-year college level by middle school, said Little.
That leads to the next problem. Santillan doesn’t know if it is better for her to stay at the kindergarten level and start with a fresh batch of kids this fall, or if she should progress with the kids and teach first grade next year.
Someone would have to create new lesson plans for first-graders, so she might have to move up to continue blazing the trail.
Does she have to create her own, unique lesson plan every day, asked Appler. When Santillan nodded yes, Appler said, “This woman needs an extra vacation.”
“Do you enjoy it?” asked board member Phil Thacker.
“I love it.”
Since Mount Airy High School now offers Mandarin, could Tharrington one day offer a Chinese immersion, asked one board member.
That doesn’t seem very likely right now, said Little. There would have to be a lot of Chinese-speaking teachers to lead the classes, and having some native Chinese speakers in the classroom would really help the other children — as Santillan has seen with the six Hispanic girls in her classroom.
Reach Jeff at 415-4692 and on Twitter @SportsDudeJeff.