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Unidos:2 tongues, one goal

Hall looking to follow charter school model in Clayton County

POSTED: December 13, 2007 5:02 a.m.

On one side of the hallway, kindergartners are taught science and social studies lessons in Spanish.

On the other side, kindergartners learn about language arts, all spoken in English.

It's just another day at Unidos Dual Language Charter School in Forest Park, the state's first public charter school to offer students instruction of the state-required curriculum in two languages.

The Clayton County school opened in the fall of 2006, beginning with 135 students in kindergarten and first grade. The school now has about 215 students in kindergarten through second grade.

"It was not hard for me to see the value of students being able to speak fluently in two languages," principal Nancy Said said in an interview last week at the school.

"I feel like this country is at a disadvantage because we don't take language acquisition seriously, and not just one language, not just Spanish, but all other languages."

Hall County school officials have similar concerns - Superintendent Will Schofield has longed talked about America's need to compete internationally, especially against Asian countries - and are looking to set up a World Languages Academy in fall 2008.

The school will take the place of Chestnut Mountain Elementary School, which is moving to a new 900-student building off Union Church Road next school year. Chestnut Mountain now is at 4670 Winder Highway.

World Languages Academy would feature a "dual-languages immersion" program such as what is featured at Unidos (Spanish for "united") in kindergarten through second grades. Higher grades would feature foreign language classes, such as Chinese.

The idea would be to continue expanding the dual-languages program until it becomes a kindergarten-through-fifth-grade school.

Hall schools has filed a charter school petition with the state Department of Education. The state Board of Education plans on voting on the petition in early 2008.

Faculty members and parents voted overwhelmingly in October for the charter school, a measure required before an application was filed Nov. 1, and so officials are anxious about moving ahead with plans.

"We will proceed with the (school) whether or not it is a charter," Schofield said.

Unidos had a similar experience. The state approved the charter for Clayton County in April 2006, giving school officials a short few months before the August 2006 opening.

"We had a very, very short amount of time to get the word out about the school and get (children) enrolled," said Dell Perry, dual-language coordinator at the school.

"We were out there banging on doors, holding public meetings, doing whatever we could to spread the word," she added. "And we got our full enrollment and had a waiting list last year for kindergarten."

Perry, a former English for Speakers of Other Languages and Spanish teacher, began pursuing the charter in 2003, when she was a graduate student at the University of Georgia in Athens.

"I started ... learning about dual-language education ... and decided that it was something that Georgia should have," she said.

Perry went about writing a charter petition and offered it to school districts.

"Clayton County was the one that picked it up and ran with it," she said.

The school district decided to place the school at one of five schools that had declining enrollments, Hendrix Drive Elementary School. Hendrix is still operating for grades second through fifth. Eventually, it could be phased out, replaced totally by Unidos.

In the meantime, the schools are sharing classroom space and other areas, such as the playground, cafeteria and media center. Rarely do the students mingle, though there is a talk of a joint field trip in the spring.

Clayton County offers free bus transportation from anywhere in the county to Unidos, though there are limits on enrollment.

"Some kids ride buses over an hour a day to get here," Perry said.

Schofield said Hall County "will consider students from anywhere in Hall County (for its school), but the majority of slots will be given to schools in close proximity that need space."

He added, "The current plan would be to provide limited transportation to that handful of schools where the majority of students will come from."

Also, Unidos doesn't see itself as adding a grade each year, but rather adding a new kindergarten class each year and the other students advancing to the next grade.

It's not semantics. Educators believe dual-language immersion is more effective the sooner students enter the program, preferably at the beginning, or kindergarten.

"That's one of the things that's an issue for us," Said said. "As a public school, we do not have the option of turning a child away if we have space.

"And so, in theory, a parent could come in and their child have no background in Spanish and put them into a classroom where all the rest of the children have had three years of content instruction in Spanish. It really puts that child at a big disadvantage."

"We counsel the parents on what those risks are," Perry added.

At least half of instruction must be in Spanish at dual-language schools. Unidos exceeds that, with 70 percent of its instruction in Spanish and 30 percent in English.

Ideally, the schools would have 50 percent native English speakers and 50 percent native Spanish speakers.

"As a public school, we can't say ‘you can come and you can't,'" Perry said. "But through luck, word of mouth, whatever has happened, we have a pretty good balance right now."

Dual-language schools must keep all children together for instruction. ESOL teachers go into language-arts classes and work in small groups with students, Perry said.

Finally, these schools don't teach foreign languages as a separate subject.

"It's taught through the content," Perry said.

One of the school's stiffest challenges is finding qualified teachers.

"They're all native speakers of whatever language they're teaching in," Perry said.

"All our Spanish-speaking teachers have a high degree of fluency in English. Not all of our English-speaking teachers have as high a degree of Spanish proficiency.

"It's very, very important to us - and we're very consistent and strict in this regard - that our teachers, if they are teaching in Spanish, have native or native-like proficiency in Spanish."

The school has 11 classrooms and two ESOL teachers.

Students said they enjoyed the school.

"You learn more," second-grader Kieara Bryant, 7, said. "If somebody talks to you in Spanish, you know what they are saying. You can communicate with them."

Dakota Bernard, a second-grader, said he gets help at home from his mother, a Spanish teacher.

Unidos officials said they are excited Hall County is looking at setting up what would be the state's second charter in dual-language immersion.

David Moody, Hall County's director of elementary education, said Thursday he was planning to visit Unidos this week and was trying to line up other educators in the district to join him.

Some Hall elementary principals, along with ESOL coordinator Sandra Perry and Moody, visited a dual-language school in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system a couple of years ago.

"The type of information we are gathering from schools around the country ... includes curriculum, instructional models, scheduling, staffing and other suggestions regarding initial implementation," Moody said.

"We have been able to learn a lot from other schools at this point."


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