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Academy is breaking language barriers
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Kindergarten teacher Luz Murillo, sings the alphabet song in Spanish with her students at the World Language Academy Wednesday. Students at the World Language Academy are part of a dual-language immersion program that teaches them Spanish and English. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

A peak inside the World Language Academy reveals many uncommon scenes.

On the floor, kindergartners sit listening intently as their animated teacher reads them a book in Spanish. In the classroom next door, native English and Spanish speaking students sing a numbers song in Mandarin Chinese. And down the hall, children clamor for a red ball in the gym shouting, "Quiero la pelota roja."

Comprised of more than 400 students and staff from nine different countries, including Ecuador, Colombia and China, the World Language Academy on Winder Highway is breaking language barriers of the West and the East.

The academy opened in August and is Hall County school system’s first charter school and first school of choice. School leaders said their mission is to steep elementary students in a dual-language immersion program so that by the end of fifth grade, all students can read, write, speak and comprehend both Spanish and English.

Yet a visitor to the academy would be hard pressed to find a Spanish class in the whole school, said World Language Academy assistant principal Sue Vaughn.

"The school is so nontraditional that ‘OK, it’s 1 o’clock, it’s time for Spanish,’ doesn’t exist in our world," Vaughn said.

Two hundred kindergarten and firstgrade students are enrolled in the dual-language immersion program at the school, while the remaining 200 students have Spanish elements integrated into subjects such as math, reading, science, art and physical education.

Next year, kindergartners as well as first- and second-graders will partake in the dual-language immersion program. By 2012, the entire school will be taught in Spanish and in English according to the Georgia Performance Standards. All students take at least one Mandarin Chinese class each week with teacher Mei Shan Spradlin, a Hong Kong native.

Carrie Woodcock, the dual-language coordinator for the academy, said students have adapted remarkably well to the new environment.

"By the second week we were in full immersion," Woodcock said. "In the hallways, we said, ‘Hi, how are you?’ in the morning and they responded in Spanish."

Woodcock said both native English and Spanish speaking students are allowed to speak whichever language they choose in the dual-immersion program. She said teachers are trained to use the total physical response method, in which they use body language to reiterate their communication in English, Spanish or Chinese.

"I think some parents were worried it was going to be a traumatic experience with sleepless nights, but it hasn’t been," Vaughn said.

Flowery Branch resident Tracey Kelley decided to send her 5-year-old daughter Allison Kelley to the World Language Academy. Kelley said she is pleased with the progress her daughter is already making.

"I was more concerned for me, really," Kelley said. "At such a young age being able to experience different cultures is not as intimidating as it is to adults. ... The fact that she is confident enough to be able to repeat whatever she’s learned is amazing."

Kelley said she wanted Allison to attend the school so that she can be an agent of unity between the Spanish and English communities. With Allison’s potential ability to speak three languages, Kelley said she believes the communication skills will help Allison be successful anywhere in the world.

"I’m looking for her to be a worldly adult, not just a member of the United States of America, but a member of the world," Kelley said.

Diana Ramirez is a native Spanish speaking teacher at the World Language Academy. Ramirez said most students are emerging from their "silent period," a typical stage in which students do not speak much as they learn a language.

"After being immersed in Spanish for 33 days, they are excited to experience Spanish as a way to communicate," she said. "They are like sponges grasping as many words and phrases as they can."

The academy has also included parents in the language learning process. An adult literacy teacher from Lanier Technical College joins a staff member at the academy in teaching weekly English and Spanish classes for parents. Vaughn said the classes are full, and parents are now on waiting lists to take the classes.

To maintain excellence in English, Vaughn said dual-language immersion students spend two hours each day in English classes with native English speaking teachers. Although the school day at the academy is about an hour longer than all other Hall County elementary schools and requires bus riders to make transfers, Vaughn said students are excited about school as they hop off the bus.

Academic preparations are being made now to accommodate World Language Academy students as they move on to middle and high school. More high school credit courses for foreign language will be offered in county middle schools and more college credit Advanced Placement foreign language classes are likely to follow in county high schools, said Hall County schools Superintendent Will Schofield.

Schofield said the World Language Academy is exactly what a school ought to be.

"There’s engaged teachers, engaged students and parents," he said. "The lieutenant governor is to be commended. This is just the tip of the iceberg of the charter movement. You will see more world language academies in Hall County."

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