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CMS Turns To Dual Language Programs To Close Education Gaps

Jessa O'Connor / WFAE
Kindergartners at Collinswood Language Academy recite their numbers in Spanish.

As the Charlotte population steadily grows and becomes more diverse, so do the students that attend Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. The achievement gap that exists for English language learners, minority students and low-income students has also grown and has become apparent within the school system. To address the gap, some CMS schools have turned to dual language programs and have found success.

There are some things you come to expect when you walk into a third grade math class. Desks littered with pencils and calculators. A teacher standing at a smartboard, writing out an equation. But in a Collinswood Language Academy classroom, you take a second look.

From the multi-colored posters on the wall to the books on students’ desks, the entire room is in Spanish. And when you listen closely, you realize the teacher is teaching the 20-student class multiplication in Spanish.

Collinswood Language Academy
Credit Jessa O'Connor / WFAE
Collinswood Language Academy

Collinswood is a K-8 dual language school, which means that half of the day is taught in Spanish and the other half is in English. Subjects like math, science, reading and writing are taught in Spanish, while English and Social Studies are taught in English.

Half of the students attending Collinswood are native Spanish-speakers, while the other half are native English speakers. According to Principal Carolyn Rodd, that 50-50 split is the key.

“We are actively seeking native Spanish-speakers and English-speakers because for the impact of a dual language environment to be effective, part of the magic sauce is having the Spanish-speakers and the English-speaking students,” Rodd said.

She said the students learn from each other, and not only do they acquire a second language by classroom instruction, but also by interacting socially.

“There’s this rich intercambio, which is absolutely beautiful,” she said.

Rodd also said the social exchange not only improves how students learn the second language, but also benefits their learning in general across all subjects.

Credit Jessa O'Connor / WFAE
Principal Carolyn Rodd, right and Marta Duran, lead language teacher.

“Immersion strategies just amplify the amount of neuro connections, and the ways the brain explodes in a positive way when learning a second language,” Rodd said. “There’s tremendous research around that.”

In 2007, North Carolina commissioned a three-year study of dual language programs in an effort to see if they can help close achievement gaps in the system. The study, which looked at Collinswood among other schools, found that students in dual language programs outperform their peers in English-only programs across the board.

That includes students who are English-language learners, black, white and special needs. The research is judged on student performance on end-of-grade exams.

East Carolina University professor Marjorie Ringler said students have success in these programs because speaking in a second language activates more parts of the developing brain. According to Ringler, “You can grow the brain the more you stimulate it.”

She also said making students express ideas in a second language forces them to think more critically.

“If they’re presented the concept in the other language — Spanish or whatever the other language may be,” Ringler said, “They become more sophisticated in forming the sentences that help tell the teacher and help tell that they’re learning.”

The research also shows that economically disadvantaged students thrive in dual language programs. Fifty-three percent of students at Collinswood are economically disadvantaged, but the school was given a higher grade by the state than other district schools with majority low-income students.

Credit North Carolina Department of Public Instruction
Data from a 2009 study, conducted by Dr. Virginia Collier and Dr. Wayne Thomas, shows that economically disadvantaged students in Dual Language programs outperformed their peers in English-only programs on both the reading and math end-of-grade exams. The green bars are non-dual language student performance. The red bars represent students in dual language programs.

Nicolette Grant, who oversees CMS's dual language programs, said the system recognizes the impact of this approach to education.

“It has been the only model, the only instructional model, that actually closes the achievement gap,” Grant said.

The district has six dual language programs at elementary and K-8 schools, and one full immersion program.

Grant said CMS has plans to continue expanding, but there is an obstacle that slows down the process.

Credit Jessa O'Connor / WFAE
Students at East Voyager Academy learn basic numbers in Mandarin.

“The biggest barrier to not expanding this to more schools is finding high quality bilingual teachers to teach the program,” she said.

But there is a growing demand for dual language programs, and not just in Spanish.

East Voyager Academy is an English-Mandarin charter school, and it just opened its doors to students this year. Tim Murph is the principal.

“Our model is just English is taught in English,” he said. “Everything else is in Mandarin Language.”

The school is currently operated out of Harvest Community Church. It was created out of a desire to give Charlotte families the option of an immersive Mandarin education as the Chinese population in the city grows.

Credit Jessa O'Connor / WFAE
East Voyager Academy Principal Timothy Murph stands in front of the modular building that houses K-3 English/Mandarin classes.

“We’re looking to help bridge the cultural distance between the American culture and the Chinese culture that’s here in our city,” Murph said.

The school has plans to buy the church and convert it into a school in the next five years. It’s currently K-3, but will add a grade every year up to the eighth grade as it grows.

Like Collinswood and the other dual language programs within CMS, Murph said East Voyager’s mission is to help students learn another language and succeed academically — all in the hopes of creating smarter global citizens.

Clarification: Dual language refers to the time taught in each language. Half the day is taught in Spanish and half the day is taught in English. The two-way method is the makeup of students. Fifty percent of the students are native Spanish-speakers, while the other half are native English-speakers.

Jessa O’Connor was an assistant digital news editor and Sunday reporter for WFAE.