Teens get a taste for teaching languages

Gwinnett County Public Schools’ seven Dual Language Immersion programs have students as young as kindergartners spending half their days learning Spanish or French. Next year, the district plans an eighth option for Korean, and parents are asking for even more.

“For all of these programs, the demand is outstripping our supply,” said Virin Vedder, the district’s coordinator of the DLI programs. “Right now, we have a lottery to determine entry, and we still have more parents interested in this educational opportunity than we have spots.”

Students in DLI perform as well as their monolingual peers on all tests, said Vedder, and they’re geared toward being more flexible. But the most valuable take-away is the ability to communicate and collaborate with global partners.

“We’re preparing students for the 21st century reality, and we have parents who desperately want this experience for the children in a public-school setting,” said Vedder.

But the district’s ability to meet the demand hinges on its successful recruitment of teachers who not only speak a second language, but who also have the flexibility to manage the demands of a DLI program.

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“They have to be bilingual and bi-literate,” said Vedder. “They have to be content specialists in math, science and literacy. Finding that person skilled in instruction in those areas is almost like finding the unicorn farm.”

Turns out there may be a few in Gwinnett’s backyard. Meadowcreek High in Norcross has students enrolled in the Early Childhood education pathway and many of them are multilingual. To get them thinking about careers as DLI teachers, Vedder recently organized a field trip for about two dozen teens who spent the day working with youngsters in the DLI program at Bethesda Elementary in Lawrenceville.

“We wanted to provide a first-hand opportunity to experience a career option in their front yard,” said Vedder. “It was a real-life application to their learning to see dual immersion in action, and at the same time, help them realize they could be a pipeline of potential teachers.”

The teens observed how the DLI classes are led by two teachers who trade off the job of conducting the first part of the day in one language and the second in another. The field trip was conducted in partnership with Georgia State University’s college of Education and Human Development that received a $2.6 million grant to recruit and credential teachers for DLI classrooms.

“In Georgia, dual-immersion statewide is relatively new, and programs are expanding rapidly, but the growth is slowed only by the shortage of teachers in the requisite languages,” said Laura May, a GSU education professor. “With this grant, we’re identifying people who speak Spanish, offering them tuition support and putting them in classrooms. And we’re also helping teachers already in classrooms by supporting their getting a DI endorsement.”

But many high school students who might be interested in teaching as a career don’t know about dual-immersion classrooms, added May.

“It wasn’t around when they were in elementary school, so these types of field trips are an opportunity for them to see what it looks like and envision themselves as a DI teacher,” she said.

Vedder believes more trips will make those connections. “Hopefully, we’ve planted a seed and given students ideas about something they might not have had knowledge about.”

Information about Dual Language Immersion in Gwinnett is online at publish.gwinnett.k12.ga.us.

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