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launch notes: what it’s like to build and grow an add.a.lingua Spanish immersion program

Are you exploring the possibility of launching a dual language immersion program?

Good for you! Considering the academic, linguistic and social benefits that accompany high proficiency in two languages, this is one of the most strategic moves you can make on behalf of your students and community.

But as you’ve probably already discovered–this is no small undertaking.

You’ll want time, experience, research, community ownership, and resources (personnel, financial, curricular, etc.) all at your disposal in order to get your program off the ground.

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Even though we’ve partnered with dozens of communities to build and grow quality dual language immersion programs, we still liken the effort to a moonshot.

Yes, this is a major challenge.

But, as our 20 partner schools have discovered…it’s totally worth it. And with the right support team beside you, success in dual language immersion education is possible.

Rebecca GomezThat’s why we’re excited to share with you some of the insights Rebecca Gomez has gleaned along the immersion journey. Maestra Gomez serves as the Spanish immersion point person at Pella Christian Grade School (and currently as a teacher), and has been with the program since its inception.

While Pella Christian Grade School is currently our only partner program in Iowa, their success is generating lots of interest. Here’s what Rebecca shared about her experience:

1. Why did Pella Christian Grade School decide to implement an add.a.lingua dual language immersion program?

As a Christian school, we decided to implement a dual language immersion program because we felt that it definitely would help us fulfill our mission statement which states, “Proclaiming the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all spheres of life and learning, Pella Christian Grade School, together with the parents, provides excellent academic training rooted in God’s infallible Word, challenging students to develop their individual God-given gifts for a life of service in God’s kingdom.”

First of all, we believe that learning another language is part of excellent academic training and knowing that on average students of immersion programs perform as well as, if not better academically than, their English track peers and that they can reach high levels of second language proficiency in a well-implemented program, we decided that an immersion program would help us to fulfill the part of our mission statement which says, “provides excellent academic training.”

We also knew that in our community there were parents who desire a second language for their children and providing this option would help us to partner with parents (“together with parents”).

Finally, we decided that speaking a second language and knowing the cultures that speak it would definitely prepare our students “for a life of service in God’s kingdom,” a kingdom that includes the whole world and a world in which there are many Spanish speakers.

Although we usually think toward the future about this life of service, we’ve found that some of our students have already found a way to serve their neighbor by helping Hispanic people who are in need of translators at stores, garage sales, etc.  It’s a beautiful thing to hear these stories!

Besides helping us to fulfill our mission statement, we also considered the fact that bilingualism promotes brain development when students reach high levels of second language proficiency and we wanted to encourage that brain development in our students.

Another reason we implemented Spanish immersion was to attract more people to our school.  The closest other school to offer an immersion education is 50 minutes away.  We hoped that some parents would enroll their students in Pella Christian specifically for the immersion program and then see what a great thing Christian education is and become convinced that it was a great option for their children, immersion track or English track.

Spanish immersion at PCGS

This has been the case as a few families who have older kids in the community school system enrolled their students in our immersion program and then transferred their older children into the English track because they decided they wanted a Christian education for them as well.  It has also been an opportunity for those members of our community who are “not religious”, but who are open to their children learning about Christianity.

2. What have been some of the positive outcomes for students and families of implementing an add.a.lingua dual language immersion program?

  • Students view themselves as bilingual and are willing to step out of their comfort zones because they have had to do that as they practice their second language.
  • A greater diversity within our teaching staff.  We now have teachers from México, El Salvador, and Paraguay and one new hire from the Dominican Republic.  This has changed the face of our school; it is now a more open place and the community perceives that.  We have had people who have enrolled their children in the English track, but say that they chose PCGS because it must be an excepting, open place if it has an immersion program.  It also allows students to interact with people “different” than themselves and learn to love them, which makes them more aware of other peoples and cultures, and also more open to them.
  • Students with Spanish language skills have had opportunities to serve people in need of language help now.  Parents are so proud of them when they do this.
  • On average, our immersion students are doing as well or better than their monolingual peers on standardized assessments given in English.  We recently did a comparison of our immersion students and their English track peers at Pella Christian on the Iowa Assessment and they are doing great!  We now have our own data to prove that not only are we giving them a great education, we are also giving them a second language.
  • Our students’ worldview has changed because of the influence of their teachers, but also because languages can shape one’s view of the world and having two languages gives them another perspective.

3. What were some of the initial concerns that your community expressed when you were exploring adding an add.a.lingua dual language immersion program?

Some of the main concerns were:

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Pella Christian Grade School first grade teacher, Rogelio Gomez, was the recipient of Leighton State Bank‘s Extraordinary Teacher of the Year Award.

  • Discord would occur amongst Spanish immersion staff and English track staff.  This has not happened at all; in fact some of the English track teachers most against implementing an immersion program were quickly won over by the warmth and work ethic of our immersion staff.
  • That it was impossible for students to learn all their grade-level content and a second language at the same time.  This fear has also not played out; as I stated before we now have our own data to show that they are learning at the same pace as their English track peers.
  • There was also a concern about staffing.  This has definitely not been easy, but we are grateful that every year the Lord has provided a new teacher for us.  Some of the difficulty has come in getting our international hires their visa before the start of the school year.
  • Another concern was that this would change our school.  That has happened, but people now acknowledge that the change has been positive.  At one of the first meetings about implementation, we had a grad from PCGS start crying at the meeting as she said that she wanted her children to have the same education as she did.  She now has her son in our immersion program and is one of our biggest supporters!

4. Looking back, what do you believe is most critical for school leaders to know when considering an add.a.lingua dual immersion program?

I believe it’s critical to think about the dual language immersion program as a Pre-K through 12th-grade program.  It’s true that students appear to be fluent by the end of 5th grade, but they still talk like a 5th grader.

The program needs to be implemented as a 50-50 model through middle school and high school so that the students’ language development grows along with their cognitive development. This means a minimun of three content areas taught in Spanish. My language goal for our students is that they can access all grade-level content areas through both their first and second languages and that upon graduating from high school they have the option of going to the university in English or abroad in Spanish.  I’m not sure that many will take that option, but I want their language to be that good!

I think it’s also critical to know that hiring is difficult and that to provide a quality immersion program, a school cannot hire teachers who are not proficient in the immersion language.  At Pella Christian Grade School, we have really preferred to hire native Spanish speakers and our students’ language levels reflect this.

Finally, I would encourage anyone exploring dual language immersion education to connect with add.a.lingua. Because of add.a.lingua, our team is provided with:

  • professional development which helps our teachers implement with fidelity
  • language frameworks which give us vocabulary, grammatical structures, word features, mentor texts, etc. on which to focus each week
  • support by email, phone, and virtual visits

I cannot say enough good things about add.a.lingua, and would encourage reaching out to them as your first step.


Our big thanks to Rebecca for this interview, and to the entire team at Pella Christian Grade School for all they do on behalf of their students and community.

If you’d like to learn more about how add.a.lingua partners with school communities to successfully launch dual language immersion programs, just leave us a note and we’ll be in touch.

 

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