Like all kindergarten students, kids in Carolina Chacon's class are learning the alphabet, numbers and simple words. But this isn't your average classroom.
"We're introducing skills in Spanish to help them learn concepts that can be transferable to English," Chacon, who is originally from Colombia, said.
The children spend half their day with a teacher who speaks only Spanish and the other half with an English-speaking teacher who reinforces the lessons learned earlier in the day.
It's how the one-way immersion program works at the Early Language Development Center, housed in the former Jones Elementary School in Gainesville.
"The one-way immersion is ensuring that first-language learners become literate in their native language as they're learning a second language," said Lois Myers, who heads the center and is the principal at Lyman Hall Elementary School.
The center opened to at-risk language students last August and so far, educators said they are seeing a difference.
"You see changes in so many aspects, and not only academic," Chacon said. "Many of the students had a low exposure to vocabulary or social interaction. They were shy to talk and tell you about themselves. But now they feel more comfortable and they ask a lot of questions."
"Their self-confidence has grown and they feel able to experiment with both languages," kindergarten teacher Sherry Savage said.
It can take several years to see the full results of the program, but a high transient rate among students has presented some challenges, Myers said.
During a presentation about the center at the Feb. 14 school board work session, Myers explained families might relocate due to personal or financial reasons. Many move back and forth between the Gainesville and Hall County school systems. As a result, children's learning can be affected.
"About 66 percent of our kids move in and out of the center over the course of elementary school and about 34 percent of our fifth-graders started at our school, which is lower than the average," Myers said.
Myers said staff are reaching out to parents to discuss the advantages students have by staying in the program.
"As we advertise to parents, we want a commitment from them to stay in our school zone so they can get the optimal benefits," she said.
Research has shown students who are literate in their native language can pick up a second language faster and at a deeper level because students can relate to the content of the new language, Myers noted.
"In today's world, it is fantastic to be literate in two languages," she said. "If you have a child who goes to an English-only school at times, the kids can lose their Spanish."
Next school year, Myers said her goal is to grow the language program so students can study two languages from an even younger age. Four-year-olds now are the youngest age group at the center.
Myers hopes to expand the center from eight classrooms to 12 and include students in the 3-year-old age group. The staff is working on grants to help fund the program.