Gwinnett latest district to launch dual language program

Clayton County's Unidos Dual Language Charter School in Forest Park is set up to serve the area's English and Spanish speakers.

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Clayton County's Unidos Dual Language Charter School in Forest Park is set up to serve the area's English and Spanish speakers.

More Georgia schools are offering language immersion programs for students to teach them advanced foreign language skills before graduation. Here’s a look at which schools offer these programs:

Gwinnett County

Annistown Elementary — Spanish

Bethesda Elementary — Spanish

Trip Elementary — French

Douglas County

Beulah Elementary School — Spanish

Clayton County

Unidos Charter School — Spanish

Hall County

World Languages Academy Charter School — Spanish

McEver Arts Academy Charter School — Spanish

Atlanta Public Schools

Perkerson Elementary — Spanish

D.H. Stanton Elementary — Spanish

DeKalb County

Ashford Park Elementary — German

Evansdale Elementary — French

Globe Academy Charter School — Chinese, French, Spanish

Rockbridge Elementary — French

Henry County

Dutchtown Elementary — Chinese

They will start kindergarten this year barely able to read English, but by the time they graduate from high school about 200 Gwinnett County Public Schools students will be able to read, speak and understand another language, as well as English.

That's the goal of Gwinnett's new dual language immersion program, which is designed to give students linguistic skills so strong, they could communicate as well as a doctor, teacher or police officer in another country. The program launches this year in classrooms at three Gwinnett schools — Annistown, Bethesda and Trip elementary — and is part of a growing trend in Georgia to offer more comprehensive language instruction.

» INTERACTIVE MAP: See where Metro Atlanta's dual language immersion schools are

The program works like this: Students learn math and science in a foreign language from one teacher while their peers learn language arts and social studies in English from a different teacher. Halfway through the day, the students switch.

Virin Vedder, assistant principal at Trip Elementary, said learning a foreign language through math and science is easier because those subjects have concrete, visual components. A French teacher can illustrate, for example, three plus five by drawing pictures in front of the class.

“This model allows for a really good exposure to the language,” Vedder said. “The language learning is really a byproduct of learning, in this case, science and math.”

In addition to the schools in Gwinnett, 11 others in Georgia offer similar dual language programs. Greg Barfield, who oversees world languages at the state Department of Education, said only three Georgia schools offered dual language during the 2012-13 school year. Eight more schools added programs in 2013-14.

State Superintendent John Barge set a goal of 20 dual language programs in Georgia by 2020.

Students in Gwinnett’s program will also learn simple reading and writing skills in the foreign language — Spanish at Annistown and Bethesda; French at Trip. Any math and science concepts students don’t understand in the foreign language will be reinforced with their English teacher.

Administrators plan to measure success using state standardized tests. Dual language students will be expected to be as good as or better than their peers, said Jon Valentine, director of foreign languages curriculum and instruction for Gwinnett schools. The goal is to test language proficiency every three years.

Academic research shows dual language students typically perform as well as or better than single-language students. But educators also say bilingual students have an increased cultural and diversity awareness, and a possible economic advantage.

“These are kids who aren’t going to graduate for 12 years. We need to prepare them for an economy we have no concept of,” Valentine said. “But we know it’s going to become increasingly global.”

According to Valentine, the program is the most cost-effective way to teach foreign language. There are no additional costs in hiring teachers, and the cost of materials is negligible.

Students will continue with the program through fifth grade. Once they reach middle school, they should be able to take an advanced foreign language class along with one other class, such as science, in that language.

Valentine said demand for the program is high, but expansion will depend on how many bilingual teachers Gwinnett can hire.

Five-year-old Sasha Vickers starts kindergarten at Trip Elementary this fall, and is enrolled in the dual language program. Sasha’s mother, Kenya Vickers, said she hopes learning French will help her daughter out-perform her peers and maybe learn a third language in the future.

“Kindergartners don’t often get to participate in such a program,” she said. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”