IRSD readies for new kindergarten world-language program
The Indian River School District is offering its youngest students the chance to be proficient in a second language by fifth grade. In September, the district will welcome kindergartners to the first Spanish-immersion classroom, at John M. Clayton Elementary School.
Currently, only the kindergarten students for the 2012-2013 school year are being selected for the program. They will spend half of the day learning in English and half learning in Spanish.
Gov. Jack Markell approved the long-term pilot program recently, and the district is now finalizing details with the Delaware Department of Education.
Around 40 students will be accepted into the program inially, and the school would add a new class each year. Children can eventually become proficient in Spanish, continuing immersion studies as a group through the fifth grade.
JMC seemed like a prime location for IR’s first immersion program, officials said. The school has available space, it already had a state grant for kindergarten funding, and it is a slightly centralized location in the district.
“It was like, ‘Wow, what an opportunity!” JMC Principal Charlynn “Char” Hopkins said. “There was just no doubt in our minds … it’s good for all students. We’re excited. It’s a great opportunity.”
Last month, while registering new students for kindergarten in the fall, JMC staff estimated that half of the parents registering their children were immediately interested in enrolling their children in the immersion program or were at least learning more about it.
Because this is a new program, the district aims to offer some slots in the class to children from other district schools. Parents within the district can submit school-choice applications to the district by May 16 for their kindergarteners to be considered for admission to JMC and the kindergarten immersion program.
If there are more than 40 serious applicants, the school plans to use a lottery system for admission.
“We want make sure that parents do understand the level of commitment” for this six-year program, said Audrey Carey, IRSD supervisor of elementary instruction.
The language immersion program initiative originated with Markell, who has emphasized the importance of language, and its impact on business, in Delaware. Known for encouraging businesses to open offices in Delaware, Markell has also seen international companies reject Delaware based on the state’s workforce, which typically only speaks English. Under Markell’s programs, Delaware is seeking to build a world-language infrastructure that can support the needs of businesses.
Carey explained the research behind language immersion: Children learn at a much faster rate when they’re young. Anyone learns faster when fully immersed, or surrounded by, foreign language, not just occasionally practicing.
Delaware educators, including Carey and Hopkins, traveled to Utah to witness immersion programs firsthand.
“I was just floored that they were reading Mandarin Chinese at the kindergarten level,” Carey said of the students. “It’s not difficult for them. They don’t understand that this is something that is supposed to be difficult.”
The Spanish language immersion program is not an accelerated course. Children will learn the same material as any other kindergartener, with the same age-appropriate teaching methods. The only difference is that they will learn in two languages.
“Despite ethnicity, despite learning ability, this is a program for all students,” said Carey.
JMC has a diverse student population – one that is 45.6 percent Hispanic, 21.4 percent black and 38.5 percent white. JMC also has the district’s largest percentage of “low income” students, at 85.1 percent, according to the Delaware Department of Education Web site.
The students will be fully immersed in Spanish for 3.5 hours daily, from books to learning materials. The Spanish-speaking teacher, who was recently hired from Madrid, will exclusively speak Spanish with the children. The English-speaking teacher, Wendy McCabe, is already part of the JMC staff. Due to the unique nature of the classes, the teachers will plan their lessons closely together.
Each year, JMC hopes to begin another kindergarten class and add more Spanish teachers as children progress. JMC should receive additional funding as school-choice enrollment increases each year.
Carey said parents of immersion students are most commonly concerned about how children learn concepts if they’re not presented in their native tongue. Yet, the same teaching strategies apply to any kindergartner. In general, youngsters understand pictures and visual aids just as much as their own native language.
The English class will consist of English language arts, phonetics, spelling, literacy and some math. Spanish class will have more math, as well as science and social studies. Delaware history taught in fourth grade will be in English.
The district is working with the state to plan an effective course. Meanwhile, children will be evaluated in English to ensure they understand the concepts.
“There’s positives and negatives. We’re hearing from both sides, which is great because it really makes you think about the program,” said Carey.
Just as schools have helped non-English speakers learn English, now English speakers can expand their own language skills.
“I truly believe that this is a true gift that we can give to students: the gift of language,” said Carey. “It’s a long-term gift, something that will never leave them.”
With the immersion pilot program, JMC will be the first Indian River school to offer full-day kindergarten. The district is working toward offering a full-day kindergarten option for regular classes in the future, as Delaware state law already mandates.
Foreign-language classes will also be returning to Indian River middle schools. Eighth-graders may take a nine-week Spanish exploratory class, and Selbyville Middle School will offer an in-depth online language course to complement the immersion course.
By high school, the immersion students could be proficient in Spanish and can take the Advanced Placement exams for college credit. They’ll have a stronger chance for college scholarships and career opportunities and an easier grasp of learning other languages.
“We’re looking forward to the adventure,” said Carey.
The state aims to have 20 full immersion programs by the year 2020, explained Gregory Fulkerson of the Delaware Department of Education. “Every district can benefit from an immersion program,” he said.
IRSD was one of the districts to apply for the program. The Delaware Department of Education sought for IRSD to be a model, as a high-achieving district with a significant Hispanic population.
“It will get easier, but the first cohort of people really need to be the pioneers,” said Fulkerson, who hopes to eventually add more languages.
Next year, the Red Clay Consolidated School District in New Castle County will also have Spanish immersion. The Caesar Rodney School District in Kent County and the Colonial School District in New Castle County will offer Mandarin Chinese. Two more districts are planning immersion programs for the following year.
Many states, including Maryland, New Jersey and North Carolina, have immersion programs at the school or district level, but Utah and Delaware are unique for having governor-led language initiatives. Utah’s programs are well-established, with several languages.
“The governor believes language learning is about jobs and making sure Delawareans have the jobs that we need to either keep businesses … or attract businesses to Delaware,” said Fulkerson.
Because today’s kindergartners will not graduate with fluent language skills for at least 12 years, Delaware is also working to improve middle- and high-school programs, to keep Delawareans competitive in the work force. However, Carey noted that five-year immersion students will eventually retain the language much better than their older counterparts.
“People will, hopefully, realize immersion is the easiest, most cost-effective way to learn another language … and create culturally competent people, as well, who appreciate people of different cultural backgrounds,” said Fulkerson. “We’re really going to create a generation of Delawareans that we’ve never seen before: those global citizens.”
A parent information night is scheduled for Tuesday, May 8, from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. at John M. Clayton Elementary, 252 Clayton Avenue, between Dagsboro and Frankford. For more information, contact Dr. Char Hopkins, principal of JMC, at (302) 732-3808 or Dr. Audrey Carey, supervisor of elementary instruction, at (302) 436-1000.