One year in, a dual-language immersion program at Clarke County’s Oglethorpe Elementary School has parents knocking on the door to get their children in.
All classes are full, and there’s a waiting list, said Oglethorpe Elementary Principal Scarlett Dunne.
The program began last year with two kindergarten classes of 22 children, with an aim to grow by two classes a year up through fifth grade, after which children move on to middle school.
This year, there are five classes - two first grade classes, two in kindergarten, and one pre-K.
Only one child has dropped out because the family moved elsewhere, Dunne said. The school’s PTO president has two children in the program, in which about half the children are native English speakers, and half are from families in which Spanish is the first language.
About 80 percent of the instruction is in Spanish, though some programs around the state are 50-50, and research suggests that a 90-10 ratio of Spanish (or some other language) is ideal, Dunne said.
The state now has 40 such dual-language immersion programs, said Patrick Wallace, a program specialist with the Georgia Department of Education, and more are on the way. Most are in the Atlanta area, though. They’re not with the Spanish language, either; one in Dalton is German, and others are French or Chinese, said Wallace, who was visiting Oglethorpe Elementary on Wednesday.
But Spanish made sense at Oglethorpe, where about 40 percent of the students are of Hispanic origin. The school has built an international corps for the programs — teachers and aides hail from Brazil, Honduras, Guatemala, Spain, Colombia, Puerto Rico and the United States.
Dunne herself chimed in on one lesson Wednesday morning — mostly in English. The children were studying bees and honey, miel de abejas, and Dunne told them she keeps bees at her house — a pretty exciting disclosure for the first-graders.
“Can you bring the queen?” asked one.
Studies have shown that children who learn two languages are better readers and fare better economically later in live, said Wallace.
It’s easy to think of the children as studying Spanish, but that’s not quite what’s going on.
They’re learning subject matter, and learning to read; it just happens to be in Spanish, but reading is reading, explained Oglethorpe instructional coach Marilyn Murphy.
It will help their literacy not only in Spanish, but in English as well, she said.
Last year’s first classes could handle three-syllable words by the end of the year, which is a surprising amount of progress, she said.
“A lot of people think it’s subtractive, but it’s additive. It gives them an economic edge, a cognitive edge and an academic edge,” Wallace said. “It’s a career enhance, no matter what the field is.”
”It’s so exciting,” Dunne said. “If you’re like me, you can’t stop talking about it.”
And they’ll wind up with skills that future employers will find very attractive, Wallace said.
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