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Students with Superpowers: Person County Dual Language Program gives students, schools a boost

Woodland Elementary School sits atop one of the rolling hills of Person County, N.C., not far from Hyco Lake, and no more than five miles south of the Virginia state line. Built in 1950, the building itself is of vintage stock, but inside the classrooms the lessons are up-to-date and having a profound impact.

You see it in a fourth-grade class, where one of the students starts a sentence, “Mrs. Suarez, don’t forget…” but then stops mid-sentence after a look from her teacher. She starts again, only this time in Spanish.

A few doors down, the fifth graders are hard at work learning how to conjugate verbs. Spanish verbs, such as ser and estar (two versions of “to be”) which have 16 possible subject-verb combinations to memorize. Once that lesson ends, the class switches to math, but everyone continues to speak in Spanish.

And in another classroom, the kindergarteners match the sounds they hear to the letters needed to spell words, such as “Kuh,” then “ay,” then “sss,” and then “oh.” Queso, or “cheese” in Spanish.

For the last five years, Woodland Elementary School has been one of two Person County elementary schools – the other is South Elementary in Roxboro – to have Dual Language Programs in which most instruction is done in Spanish. About half the students in each school are enrolled in dual language.

The Person County School District launched the programs after gathering feedback on a new strategic plan, which identified innovative programming and increased foreign language opportunities as common themes from stakeholders. That led to the district partnering with Participate Learning to help integrate the Dual Language Program and to provide international exchange teachers who are not only experienced instructors, but also native Spanish speakers.

The district’s partnership with Participate Learning stemmed from Dr. Rodney Peterson, the superintendent, having worked with them while in Johnston County and seeing firsthand the positive impact their Dual Language Programs had in improving student achievement and expanding students’ perspectives. 

Five years of dual language have yielded strong results in Person County, whether it be measured by student achievement, language proficiency, parental satisfaction, or community engagement, according to Peterson.

“Both South and Woodland elementary schools would see dual language as an investment in academics,” Peterson said. “And a lot of the positive impact has been driven by the fact that you need to have a lot of fortitude and perseverance, from both teachers and students, to stay with learning a second language. As we move into the fifth year, you see the competency level in that second language and strong academic performance in the traditional language. Seeing the results, I think our parents have been tremendously pleased.”

For Person County, this year is special because the dual language fifth graders at both schools will complete the first phase of a program they started as first graders. A short visit to any dual language classroom quickly reveals how much progress the students have made, according to Dwayne Johnson, the principal at Woodland Elementary.

“It’s remarkable to see students as young as 5 wrestling with two languages, and then you hear the fifth graders speak so well,” Johnson said. “Dual language has brought an abundance of energy and rejuvenated our school in some ways.”

How Dual Language Works

The idea driving dual language programs is simple: it’s easier to learn a new language as a child, so why not have elementary school students learn in a second language, when it’s more likely they’ll master it. In addition, research consistently shows that bilingual education has wide-reaching benefits that lead to higher student academic performance.

Person County has worked with Participate Learning since launching the program. Through Participate Learning, Person County not only secured experienced, trained instructors who are native Spanish speakers—known as Ambassador Teachers—but also received expert help in integrating the program into the schools.

From the beginning, the teachers spoke in Spanish whether they were teaching math, science, or any other topic. Adriana Paredes, Natalia Castrillion, and Ana Flores, from Ecuador, Colombia, and Honduras, respectively, helped launch the program as exchange teachers that first year. They remember the start with just one class in each school, speaking almost entirely in Spanish to their new students. Just as the kids were trying to learn a new language, the teachers were learning to work and live in a new country.

“It all started with an open house,” said Flores, who teaches kindergarten at South Elementary. “It was harder to get people excited when we hadn’t started yet. But parents became more and more excited as they saw the results.”

Castrillon, who teaches second grade at South Elementary, said she continues to be impressed by how quickly students learn Spanish.

“In second grade we don’t speak any English,” Castrillon said. “It’s amazing how much they read, speak, and comprehend.”

For Paredes, who teaches at Woodland Elementary, the progress of the program makes her proud and happy, especially as she sees parents of fifth graders reach out to encourage parents of first graders on Facebook.

“I’m so happy for the students and all they have accomplished,” Paredes said. “It’s so wonderful to listen to them speaking in Spanish, and jumping back and forth from English to Spanish. And they are so excited about the cultures, talking about how they want to travel around the world.”

Both schools added a new grade of dual language each year as more and more families heard about the strong results.

“Parents want to give their kids every advantage,” said Liliana Suarez, a fourth-grade teacher from Colombia at Woodland Elementary. “And being bilingual is a big advantage.”

Katia Bocanegra is from Peru and teaches fifth grade at South Elementary, where she said she has seen first-hand the benefits that researchers identify in bilingual students.

“It’s amazing to see what the bilingual brain does,” Bocanegra said. “Research says it works twice as fast as the brain is just ready to learn. The key is that it’s a learning strategy that can be applied to any subject.”

In Bocanegra’s case the results are clear. In January her class of fifth graders learned they finished in the top 25 percent of all fifth graders in North Carolina on state tests. The statewide tests are in English, showing that bilingual education succeeds in both languages.

The success of that particular class aligns with the overall success of students in the Dual Language Program, who consistently outperform the state average on a wide range of assessments. 

Impacting the Community

The Ambassador Teachers also have had a major impact on the community. From serving as translators to sharing their home cultures, that impact extends to all students in both schools, whether they are enrolled in the traditional or dual language programs.

“There may be two tracks, but all the students are eager to learn about the different countries and cultures our teachers come from,” Johnson said. “We all learn so much about cultures during the year and it’s just great to be a part of that.”

Perhaps the best example of the teachers’ community impact was the Hispanic Heritage Celebration, which the Participate Learning teachers played a big part in organizing. With support from local businesses and restaurants, the event at South Elementary attracted a much bigger crowd than organizers even imagined, said Whitney Sharlow, principal at South Elementary.

“We had hundreds of people, with cars parked everywhere and all three of our parking lots were full,” Sharlow said. “My assistant principal and her husband directed traffic. But it was so much fun, and a really great event that the teachers helped organize. When I think about rural Person County, the fact that our students were exposed to so many different cultures and have access to so many different instructors from different areas of the world is truly magical and amazing. ”

Peterson believes that cultural impact comes on top of the strong academic impact the Ambassador Teachers bring to their schools both in the Dual Language Program and in traditional classroom settings.

“From my perspective, the Participate Learning teachers bring a wealth of knowledge and they are seasoned educators,” Peterson said. “Their ability to adapt to a community is uncanny, and I think that’s a credit to Participate Learning and how they recruit and support these teachers.”

The biggest community endorsement has been the reaction from parents. Joseph Warren helped start the Dual Language Program when he was principal at Woodland Elementary School.  At the start, he had to work to get parents to enroll their children in the Dual Language Program.

Now Federal Programs Director for Person County Schools, he’s seen perceptions change dramatically.

“The elementary program is so strong now that we have parents who have their eyes on sending their kids to one of our dual language programs years before they’re actually old enough for kindergarten,” Warren said.

The focus for the district now is to expand the Dual Language Program to middle school so the first set of fifth graders to complete the elementary school part can continue their bilingual education. Person County again is partnering with Participate Learning to implement Conexiones, which is designed specifically for middle school dual language education.

“We want to build on the success our students have achieved so far,” Warren said. “I say it’s like building a house where we have a good foundation and we’ve started the framing, but we need to finish it.”

As the program keeps expanding, more and more English-speaking families now have multiple children in the Dual Language Program. That means more kids who are able to communicate in two languages, which leads to some new situations.

Maria Phillips, a fourth-grade teacher from Costa Rica at South Elementary, has had many calls over the years from parents saying that their kids are arguing in Spanish and they want to know what the argument is about.

“It’s almost always not a big deal, but the students love it,” Phillips said. “I always tell them they have a superpower.”

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