Monday was a day of first for Gwinnett County Public Schools. The first day of school, the opening of GCPS’ first theme high school and a new language program at an elementary school.

Level Creek Elementary School in Suwanee unveiled its new Dual Language Immersion program, or DLI for short. The program takes two classes of kindergarten students and immerses them in learning English and Spanish.

School principal Daniel Skelton said the program is a 50/50 model, meaning at least 50 percent of the school day is spent learning in the new language.

At Level Creek, Emily Costine and Kerri Griffin serve as the kindergarten team tasked with teaching a group of 56 children divided into two classes. Costine teaches the classes Spanish as well as math and science, while Griffin teaches students language arts and social studies in English.

“We started the process of getting this program two years ago,” Skelton said. “The teachers (Constine and Griffin) spent last year getting trained to do this program.”

Part of the training included observing other schools’ programs and making sure both classrooms were as similar as possible to ensure students could identify things in both languages.

Costine is in her 10th year as a teacher and has previously taught Spanish at the high school and elementary school level. Griffin is in her 15th year as a teacher, all as a kindergarten instructor.

“It’s definitely new and different doing this,” Griffin said. “Halfway through my career I’m spicing it up a little bit.”

Level Creek is not the only school to offer the DLI program. Annistown Elementary, Baldwin Elementary, Bethesda Elementary, Camp Creek Elementary, Ivy Creek Elementary and Meadowcreek Elementary offer Spanish to students, while Trip Elementary provides students with a chance to learn French.

Skelton said the program will have two teachers for each grade instructing students in the program with the goal that students will be fluent in Spanish upon graduating high school.

Participation in the DLI program was voluntary with students attending Level Creek getting the option to enroll in the program first. Skelton said all but three of the 56 available slots went to students attending the school. The final three slots were selected by a lottery and opened to anyone kindergartner in the district.

Skelton said there is currently a waiting list and the cutoff for allowing students in the DLI program is after the first semester of a child’s first-grade year.

In addition to the new program, GCPS opened the district’s first theme school. Paul Duke STEM High School, located in off Peachtree Industrial Blvd, welcomed students to its $37 million facility.

“It’s exciting to see a dream come to reality,” Paul Duke principal Jonathon Weatherington said. “So many people have worked hard to make this happen and it is exciting to see it come to fruition.”

The start of the school year is a chance for the administration and student body to define the culture and implement their “trailblazer concept” according to Weatherington.

“We’re here to really be innovative in our approach to education,” he said. “We have students that are excited to be here and take advantage of the option provided to them.”

Junior Alex Ortega is part of a group of students who made the switch from nearby Norcross High to Paul Duke.

Ortega said the school’s highly focused STEM program will allow him the opportunity to find exactly what he wants to major in before attending college.

“I just had an interest in more science and engineering based things,” Ortega said. “This provided a better opportunity to accomplish that learning.”

The junior said he woke up at 5 a.m. feeling more excited than nervous about school.

“I knew some of my friends were coming here and others decided to stay so it’s not too nerve racking,” Ortega said.

Freshman Frederick Williams said his passion for technology drove him to go to Paul Duke.

“When they said there was a STEM high school I got interested,” Williams said. “It’s an all-around school that allows you to live out your passion for inventing or creating things.”

Williams’, who has a passion for video games, plans on focusing on a career in creating and developing games. For now he has a goal of creating something in the school’s engineering room.

“I don’t know exactly what I want to do yet,” he said. “Good news is I’ve got all year to figure it out.”

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I graduated from Brookwood High School and Georgia Southern University with a degree in Journalism. I cover news and education for the largest school system in the state of Georgia.

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