To learn something that will stick with you for life, it’s best to start when you’re young. That philosophy drives Gwinnett County Public Schools’ Dual Language Immersion program.
For about a decade, the district has offered an opportunity for students to spend half their school day learning in another language. Six years ago, Trip Elementary began a French dual language immersion program. Enrollment is voluntary, starting with incoming kindergartners who are guaranteed a spot every year afterward. They are allowed to drop out if the program isn’t a good fit but, “I haven’t lost a single student,” said Principal Rukina Walker.
The first group will move on to middle school at the end of this school year, having pioneered a path for those that come behind them.
The French curriculum must be translated from English, so students in the program are receiving the same lessons as students in traditional classes.
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Binta Bin-Wahad, a native of the West African nation Guinea who grew up speaking French, teaches it in the third-grade DLI class at Trip.
“It may seem like extra work to translate all the lessons, but it’s second nature to me,” she said.
Katie Basile, the English language teacher in the same class, said there was a little bit of adjustment.
“I trained in France and met with teachers and shared an experience that’s so different,” she said.
The students start with the new language in kindergarten on the first day.
“It takes them a little while to get used to it but by the third or fourth week, they’ve mastered simple words and phrases and are beginning to feel comfortable with the language,” said Bin-Wahad.
Her third-graders say they often think in French since math and social studies are the lessons they are taught in French.
“I sometimes have to stop and think about the English word for something in math,” said Bella Glasco. Her classmates nodded in agreement. But they all concur that they wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
Maddox Cannon and his family traveled to France over the summer and he was the only member of the family who spoke the language.
“It was pretty cool that I ordered food for everyone and got directions and stuff like that,” he said smiling. He said the program has gotten him interested in a career in architecture or engineering on an international level.
Similarly, Chinoo Nwosu has aspirations of becoming a translator.
“I already help my mom learn French so I already have some experience,” she said.
Madison Cain also has dreams of putting her French tutelage to work.
Earlier this month, the third-, fourth- and fifth-graders at Trip had a special visit from Rémi Courgeon, a French author and illustrator. Sponsored by the French Embassy, he read from his book “Feather” and talked to the students about French culture.
The experience solidified Madison’s determination to be an author herself. “I want to write in English and French,” she said.
And although Courgeon’s book is also available in English, his presentation was all in French.
The book, a winner of New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books award, tells the story of musical girl who is also tenacious, tough and a fighter. It teaches children about taking charge and realizing their dreams. As he quizzed the kids about how their lives were the same or different from the protagonist’s, nods and choruses of “Oui” filled the air. After the story was done, he put them through their paces asking questions that required more detailed responses.
Principal Walker said she’s been bowled over by the success of the program.
“The program started my first year as principal here,” she said. “I don’t speak French, but we’ve become a French school even for the children that aren’t in the program.”
There are French words of the day and French words and phrases affixed to walls, and part of the morning announcements are read in French.
“We don’t want it to seem like the program is elite,” she said. “We include everyone in the learning on some level.”
The school has already been in communication with nearby Bay Creek Middle School about the next phase of the program.
“It won’t be an immersion program from that point on,” said Virin Vedder, DLI coordinator. “We had to write three new courses because these students are more advanced than entry-level French students.”
In high school those same kids can take Advanced Placement French and hopefully add foreign language mastery to their diploma.
“We started this program out slow and steady and we’re seeing fantastic results,” said Vedder.
“There’s power in the people and we’ve got awesome teachers and world-class support. The students have nowhere to go but up.”
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