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Immersive language program set to roll out in three schools
Cumming ELI
Cumming Elementary School teacher Yessica McNeeley helps Carlos Soto on the computer. The school system is planning a new immersive language program that aims to graduate a class of fully fluent, bilingual and bi-cultural Spanish and English speakers for 2018-19. - photo by Bradley Wiseman

It could be the beginning of the end for the traditional language education.

In the upcoming school year, 2018-19, 150 students from three Forsyth County elementary schools will enter into a new immersive language program that aims to graduate a class of fully fluent, bilingual and bi-cultural Spanish and English speakers.

According to Michaela Claus-Nix, the head of world languages for Forsyth County Schools, the program will differ from other instructional styles because it will teach students content like math and science in Spanish.

“The difference is that they are not just learning the language from a language class; they actually learn academic content in another language,” Claus-Nix said.

If elected by a parent or guardian, the Dual Language Immersion program will take native English and Spanish speaking students and divide their day between Spanish and English instruction.

“It is not the regular word language class where there is an exposure in elementary school, and maybe a level one or a level two in middle school, then the higher levels in high school. Students that are in the Dual Language program reach [high school] proficiency by the time that they graduate elementary school,” she said.

This coming fall, 50 rising kindergarten students from Kelly Mill, Brandywine and Cumming elementary schools have elected to be the first class of Spanish/English Dual Language Immersion students in Forsyth County.

Claus-Nix said that each classroom will be a collaboration of an English instructor and a Spanish instructor. The 150 Forsyth students will spend half of each day learning topics like math, science and Spanish literacy from the Spanish speaking immersion teacher, and half learning Social studies, English literacy and English language arts from the English speaking teacher.

Lee Anne Rice, Principal of Cumming Elementary, said that parents, teachers and faculty are ready and excited to be one of the first language immersion programs in Forsyth County.

“We are very excited, and I’m very grateful that our district has been so supportive. They have given us training, research and the principals have been in a study group together. And together we have been able go into other schools in the state that have Dual Language so we can pull the best thing from each of them to bring back to our own,” Rice said. 

Rice said that in their tours of other schools, the thing that struck her about the language immersion students is how attentive and active they were about learning.

“The biggest thing that stands out to me is the level of student involvement. All students, whether they are native English or native Spanish speakers are engaged in full dialogue,” she said.  

Claus-Nix said that engagement is one of the things they are hoping the program will foster in students. She said that this model of education has been successful in the past because it opens students up to different possibilities and allows the teachers to play off of each other.  

“What we have seen from Dual Language Immersion is a fairly innovative instructional model to really make sure that we achieve the highest levels of proficiency in another language, ” she said.

“What we are really trying to achieve is that they become truly bilingual, bi-literate and bicultural by the end.”

Claus-Nix said that they have seen DLI programs grow exponentially in Georgia. She said that in 2012-13 the state started with three programs and those have grown to 40 DLI programs across the state. Next year they anticipate that number to grow to 48 statewide.

“If you take a look at Utah, they have a statewide model with over 200 programs … so it’s not a new idea in the nation, but it is a fairly new idea in Georgia,” Claus-Nix said.

One of those 40 Georgia schools with a tried and tested language immersion program, the World Language Academy in Hall County, is nearing the graduation of its first cohort of language immersion students.

According to Carrie Woodcock, Head of World Languages and global initiatives at Hall County Schools, in the years since the academy opened in 2008, they have seen students excel in the program.

She said that the first class of World Language Academy immersion program students will graduate in 2020.

“In terms of academic performance, the kids are stellar,” she said. “Those [bilingual kids] tend to be great problem solvers and so they thrive in this academic environment.”

Woodcock said that they have not only seen students excel academically, but they have seen them become more open to other cultures.

“In addition to the academics and the language is the fact that these kids are not only linguistically different, but also culturally different. They think about the world with a world view. That is an amazing thing,” she said.