GCPS to offer Spanish, French language immersion programs to kindergarteners

High school academy model also coming to Gwinnett County Public Schools

SUWANEE — Kindergarteners speaking Spanish and French will be a reality next fall in Gwinnett County Public Schools.

Under a new initiative that was outlined on Thursday for Gwinnett County Board of Education members, kindergarteners at Annistown Elementary, Bethesda Elementary and Trip Elementary will spend at least half of their school day learning their curriculum in a foreign language. The voluntary “dual language immersion” program has more than tripled in Georgia since last year, GCPS officials said, as 10 programs are active this year.

Programs will use a two-teacher model: one who instructs exclusively in the target language for half of the day, and a second who teaches in English for the remainder of the day.

The district’s current language program model, which begins in eighth grade, helps students reach novice or low intermediate levels in a foreign language, said Jon Valentine, the district’s director of foreign languages.

“If they get on a plane the day after they graduate and go overseas, what job can they do?,” Valentine said. “They can be a tour guide or a cashier.”

Valentine was hired by GCPS in June after he was a German teacher in Fulton County Public Schools and was the state’s foreign language director.

The need for this program came from the district’s business partners, Valentine said, as it gives students a competitive advantage, but also in part because Gwinnett has become a hub for international business. Those business partners said they need people who can work on international teams to solve global problems, Valentine said.

The district plans to roll the program out to additional grades each year, so it reaches fifth-graders — kindergarteners who start the program next year — by 2019.

French was chosen after discussions with the business community, the military and state department, which said most peace-keeping efforts are in former French colonies, Valentine said.

The three schools selected were chosen because they expressed an interest, or teachers or administrators at the school have a background in a foreign language. For example, Trip Assistant Principal Virin Vedder is a former French teacher.

District officials said the pilot program could extend to more schools around the county.

“A lot of that depends on how the pilot does,” Superintendent/CEO J. Alvin Wilbanks said. “But certainly if the program works as well as we think it will, it certainly will be something that moves around to different clusters.”

DeKalb County Public Schools offers similar programs in German, French and a multi-language setting, while Atlanta Public Schools offers Spanish and Henry County Public Schools offers a program in Mandarin Chinese. Schools in South Carolina and North Carolina also offer similar programs.

The need to learn foreign languages escalated since 1945 when the United States accounted for half of the world’s gross domestic product, Valentine said, to 2011 when the U.S. controlled 19 percent, as 11 other countries each accounted for at least two percent of GDP.

Associate Superintendent Gale Hey said the Department of Foreign Languages has worked with Human Resources and principals so the staff for this program comes from the regular allotment of teachers. They have also looked for teachers already employed by the district who are fluent in a foreign language.

Hey added that the program doesn’t exempt a heritage speaker, and any child after third grade would not be a candidate for the program.

“My sense would be it will be not only a good thing, but a young child would adapt to it fairly quickly,” Board member Dr. Robert McClure said.

Hey added that 5-year-olds aren’t literate in either language, and after visiting schools where the program is already implemented, Hey said students claim they’re better problem-solvers.

“They attribute that to this program,” she said.

Academy framework coming to 5 high schools

The academy model already in place at Lanier High through its Center for Design and Technology is coming to four other high schools.

Assistant Superintendent Jonathan Patterson gave an overview to the Gwinnett County BOE on Thursday, and said the model would be used at Central Gwinnett High, Shiloh High, South Gwinnett High and Meadowcreek High.

The model is designed using three inter-connected “strands”: teaching and learning, the transformation of the secondary school experience and the transformation of business and civic engagement.

“The goal is develop a new generation of young people who are college-ready and career-focused,” Patterson said.

Patterson referenced unemployment rates from January from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics that said high school dropouts had a unemployment rate of 12 percent, while high school graduates were at 8.1 percent, those who finished some college or had an associate’s degree were 7 percent, and a bachelor’s degree or higher had an unemployment rate of 3.7 percent.

The roll out has already received plenty of interest, Patterson said, as 45 teachers at Central Gwinnett, for example, requested to be on a steering committee.

The academies will feature different types of assignments, a smaller learning environment and teachers and students who have chosen to be there, Patterson said.