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Twenty pre-K students at Hall County's World Language Academy are among only a handful of 4-year-olds in the Western Hemisphere who spend 80 percent of their school day communicating with teachers in Spanish, 10 percent of the day communicating in English and 10 percent of their day learning Mandarin Chinese.
Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield said the goal is to get these 20 kids fluent in English, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese before high school graduation. Turning out more multilingual high school graduates means turning out more students who can cross continents to seize exciting job opportunities.
"We know it's a very marketable skill," Schofield said. "When we start looking into the corner offices of corporate America 25 years from now, an awful lot of the occupants of those offices are going to be multilingual. They're going to be multicultural. They're going to be able to work with very diverse groups of people from all over the world. And there's no reason why we can't be giving all of the children in Hall County that advantage."
Schofield said the earlier schools can begin developing kids' linguistic skills, the better.
"If you're going to use the dual immersion program, you really have to catch them young," he said. "It's an amazing concept. Second grade is almost too late."
Schofield said adults who try to learn a foreign language often struggle because they think first in English, then translate to another language.
"It's a very clumsy process ... but if you teach young children foreign languages, there's a lot of research out there that says the brain really starts to even develop differently, and that these young children are able to think in these other languages and they don't have to have that internal translation process."
Because other cultures teach their children foreign languages at a very young age, they have multilingual students who speak three, four or five languages with ease, Schofield said.
Mary Mazarky, assistant commissioner for pre-K at the Bright from the Start Georgia Department for Early Care and Learning, said she's excited about the state's three pre-K programs that offer Mandarin Chinese for the first time this fall. In addition to the World Language Academy's program, two private programs in Kennesaw offer pre-K Mandarin classes, she said.
"We're very excited about what's going on this year, and we're going to be watching it closely and see hopefully we're going to be able to build this program across all of pre-K," Mazarky said. "... There is no program worldwide that is doing it with 4-year-olds, so Georgia is very unique."
Carrie Woodcock, dual language coordinator for Hall schools, said the World Language Academy is ditching the old model of isolated foreign language class.
"It's not that we're teaching Spanish language, we are teaching in Spanish. We are teaching in Chinese," she said. "Teachers collaborate a lot here. You can't teach in isolation in a school like this."
Laura Quezada, lead pre-K teacher at the World Language Academy, said students start with basic shapes, and learn colors and the letters of their names.
"It's an excellent program. I think it will work for any school anywhere," she said. "... I was surprised because at first we thought it would be a little hard because of their age, but it's been pretty easy. They have new questions every day. They're very interested in learning new words."
As for students' English abilities, Woodcock said last school year's test scores and students' literacy skills show academy kids are performing well.
"We know English is the dominant language in the community and kids pick up on that. Kids get the literacy concept in any language," she said.
Schofield and Woodcock said student success at the World Language Academy demonstrates that America's public schools must shift foreign language education to younger students for the nation to produce workers who can compete outside U.S. borders.
Just four years ago, Hall County schools offered foreign language classes only to high school students - to students who are "embarrassed" to speak new words in front of their peers, Woodcock said.
"I think one of the greatest flaws in our national approach to foreign language is that we would start people when they're teenagers in high school or start them when they're in college," Schofield said. "You can pick up the language, and with a lot of hard work, you could probably become proficient at it, but it's an awful lot of hard work."
Lisa Hayes, whose daughters are in their second year at the World Language Academy in Flowery Branch, said her children are picking up Spanish and Mandarin well and excelled on last school year's state standardized test. Hayes is a former high school social studies teacher and said the World Language Academy is proof that it is time public schools provide more languages to younger students.
"In my opinion, America's a little late on this," she said. "This school shows it's not hard to do."
Hall County has three other Spanish/English dual immersion classes this year at Sardis, Martin and Chicopee elementary schools. The system hopes parents at those schools will send their kids to the World Language Academy in kindergarten. All academy students get some Mandarin Chinese instruction in addition to their daily Spanish immersion. Schofield said Hall administrators are developing middle and high programs to support dual language students when they leave the World Language Academy.
Other Hall middle and high schools have Mandarin and Spanish programs, as well as some German and French, although those languages are less of a priority, Schofield said.
Gainesville schools Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said she agrees all elementary children need foreign language classes earlier. She said the Gainesville system is trying to create more consistency across schools' foreign language programs.
Gainesville's Fair Street International Baccalaureate World School does offer opportunities for students to learn Vietnamese, Mandarin Chinese and Spanish, among other languages. At Gainesville middle and high schools, she said students can learn Spanish, French, Mandarin Chinese, Latin, American Sign Language and German. Students can also take online Italian or Arabic classes.
Dyer said the Gainesville school system does not have any dual immersion classes, although the idea was considered when opening Fair Street's IB program.
"The faculty wanted to do immersion, but parents preferred not to," she said.
Schofield said if the community supports it, Hall schools will provide more language programs and opportunities for young students.
"We are so on our own with this that we're just going to have to see how it goes. We're going to have to see what the resource pattern looks like," he said.
With pre-K dual immersion waiting lists already bearing the names of 70 students for next year, Schofield said another Hall dual immersion school is in the works.
"It won't be too long in the future when we'll see a World Language II pop up somewhere in Hall County, it's proving to be just too powerful of a model," he said. "It's overwhelmingly popular with its parents. We're seeing already in one year little children who are getting the nuances and inflection of the language."
Schofield said he realizes not every parent shares a passion for giving their children an opportunity to learn languages, so there will always be some choices out there.
"If we have an awful lot of parents saying, ‘Gosh, we'd like Mandarin offered in our part of the county,' then we'll do everything we can to offer it," he said. "... So what we're going to try to do is do a real good job of listening."