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Language Learning

Ten Years Later, Students See Great Gains from Dual Language Programs

Ten years ago, Suzanne Mitchell thought she was crazy for starting a dual language program at her school.

“I thought “Oh my, what are we thinking?” Are we sure this is the right way to go? I didn’t know of another school that was doing dual language,” Mitchell said.

At the time, Mitchell was the literacy coach at Selma Elementary School, in Selma, N.C., about 30 miles southeast of Raleigh. Students were struggling with English proficiency, and she was skeptical about adding instruction in Spanish.

But looking back 10 years later, Mitchell couldn’t imagine Selma Elementary School without a dual language program.

In 2007, Selma started its first dual language program with 24 Kindergarten students. These students learned core subjects like reading, math, and science in Spanish one day and were taught in English the next day. This two-way dual language model allows for the target language (Spanish) and English to be used equally.

“It was amazing to watch the kindergarteners. They went from looking at each other, trying to figure out what the teacher was saying by Christmas time where [the teacher] says something and they know exactly what to do. They don’t have to look around,” said Mitchell, who has acted as principal since 2013.

At first, Mitchell had to convince parents and the community to take a chance on the program. When the first group of dual language students reached third grade, school administration was able to see how these students performed on End of Grade tests (EOGs).

The dual language classes, even in years when overall scores were lower, actually had double the proficiency of traditional classes. Mitchell said it’s never been lower than double the proficiency.

Once the school looked at the data and the success of the program, they added another class to expand the program to more students.

“When you look at data that show students outperforming traditional classes 50 to 200 percent, I really started feeling guilty about the kids who weren’t having access to the program,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell spent about a year talking to the district about the heightened student achievement and advocated to open another track. Based on Selma Elementary’s results, the district was very supportive of offering more dual language opportunities.

As the program expanded, Mitchell said it was very important to tap into teacher expertise to lead staff training and development. One of their curriculum coaches was a third grade dual language teacher before moving into the role. The Spanish-speaking teachers also help select classroom materials and run trainings.

This has led to a unifying vision for the school. Family and curriculum nights bring together parents and families and celebrate the cultures represented in the school. Parents are invited to share what the experience has been like for them.

“In terms of closing the achievement gap, dual language is doing it in a way that is much better than our typical ESL programs. When children can become proficient in their native language, I think they’re able to leverage it as they’re learning English,” Mitchell said.

Now more than 10 years later, Mitchell has a vision for those students who have completed the program. She would love to see high school students receive scholarships for becoming teachers and administrators in dual language environments.

“Would that not be amazing? That’s a dream I have,” Mitchell said.

For more, see 8 ways to support children in dual language programs.

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