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Hall County schools earn top honors
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West Hall High School Spanish language students Monica Pascual, closest, along with Ana Robles, center, and Kenny Alvarez follow along as fellow students act out a play in Spanish. - photo by Tom Reed

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Hear West Hall Spanish teacher Belinda Sauret explain what’s special about the school’s bilingual program.

Two Hall County schools are among five schools statewide being recognized today for excellence in international education.

West Hall High School and the World Language Academy are receiving "Excellence in International Education Awards" from the Center for the Advancement and Study of International Education. The awards will be presented at the International Education Summit in Atlanta.

International business leaders, legislators and teachers will attend the conference to learn from educators who have developed successful multilingual and multicultural programs in schools.

Bobbi Kay, associate executive director for the Center for the Advancement and Study of International Education, said the whole community plays a role in providing kids with an education that prepares them for a multicultural life in the 21st century.

"We think it is very important that all the stakeholders are in this," she said. "The businesspeople are the people who will be inheriting the students who will become part of the work force. Legislators need to understand what the needs are of schools."

Laurie Ecke, IB coordinator and math teacher at West Hall High, said the school is being recognized for its International Baccalaureate program that offers students the opportunity to graduate with a bilingual diploma.

"I believe we are the only public school in the nation to offer the bilingual IB diploma," she said.

Students who become fluent in two languages and have studied both at the highest level are eligible for the diploma.

Ecke said the goal is to produce students who can think critically in two languages.

The most common bilingual degree at West Hall High is the Spanish and English degree. Many native Spanish speakers are finding classes at West Hall that nurture their native language while developing proficiency and high-level thinking skills in English.

"Instead of saying, ‘This is a child who needs to learn English,’ we say, ‘This is a child who needs to learn English, but is very proficient in Spanish and could possibly take some honors classes or AP or IB classes,’" Ecke said. "And that’s kind of a paradigm shift. ... The students intellectually are able to achieve much more."

Belinda Sauret teaches IB and Advanced Placement Spanish at West Hall High. In other classes, her Spanish students are taught the curriculum in English, but in her classes, native and non-native Spanish speakers read college-level literature in Spanish.

She said pushing students to think on a high level in Spanish develops a deep understanding of the language, which leads them toward fluency.

"We’re looking for ways to keep the skills that native speakers of Spanish have while developing the other skills that they need in English, as well," Sauret said. "What we see in the research is that it doesn’t really make sense to cut people off from resources in their native language while they’re learning a second language. So if we can support with some resources in Spanish, we can actually make the learning process go faster."

Carrie Woodcock, dual language coordinator for Hall County schools, said the World Language Academy is being recognized for immersing students in Spanish and English and teaching them Mandarin Chinese. The school supports language instruction with lessons in other cultures’ foods, traditions, holidays and arts.

Woodcock said the language and cultural pieces will help students to communicate and work better with people from other cultures. She said it is important for students to learn about their own cultures and to learn of their friends’ cultures and their future business partners’ cultures.

"We believe we need for our students to be prepared to work globally," she said. "I think that’s where we’re headed by default with our technology resources. In this world, our children can be instantaneously speaking with someone overseas, and they do."

She said it is important, also, for students to learn the manners appropriate in other cultures.

"Time and time again, we’ve had political snafus just because people didn’t understand that culture," she said. "I dare say that if we can eliminate a lot of those cultural misunderstandings, we can eliminate a lot of problems in the world."

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