Dual Language Immmersion

Two-Way Dual Language Immersion is making an impact at GFW Elementary School

Research and data shows that students who participate in two-way dual immersion programs outperform their peers academically, but what does learning really look like?

GFW Public Schools launched a dual language immersion section for kindergarten in the 2023-24 school year and saw immediate interest in the program. Standing out among other area districts as the only one in the region to offer this program, the class uses a 50/50 model that sees half of the day taught in Spanish and the other half in English. 

Karen Maldonado teaches the class along with interventionist Cecilia Zendejas and brings her unique perspective and long experience with dual language learning to her students. Growing up in La Lima, Honduras, Ms. Maldonado attended a bilingual school as a student and spoke both English and Spanish at home. Her parents met through working for Chiquita Banana in Honduras and her school saw teachers from the United States and Canada teaching in both languages. 

“Gibbon actually reminds me a lot of La Lima but instead of corn, we had bananas,” said Ms. Maldonado. “I have always had a passion for speaking more than one language and am so excited to be able to share that with others.”

She spent most of her teaching career in Honduras but looked for new opportunities in 2018 as a way to find a change after her own children left home, eventually ending up in North Carolina to start an immersion program. When it was time to explore new opportunities, she found the posting for GFW and felt immediately connected to the district’s mission, vision, and story. 

“I loved the sense of community that I saw in GFW and was so excited to be a part of it,” she said. “It is a really special town and I love that everyone greets and supports each other.”

The school year started and teachers got to work immediately, greeting students in Spanish and starting the day speaking almost entirely in Spanish and then changing after lunch to entirely in English. The teachers were nervous because the vocabulary level is so high in the curriculum, but students are responding wonderfully. The day starts with a morning message in Spanish and an introduction to the day’s lesson, a story in Spanish, some songs, math, and other activities. 

“The students are so wonderful and they are understanding a lot,” said Ms. Maldonado. “Research shows that there are more barriers to learning a language later in life. Young learners know that it’s challenging, but they keep on trying and there are so many benefits like improving working memory, problem solving, and I see that every day in the classroom.”

Parents who have chosen the program share that they are seeing some amazing things in their students and that they are happy with their decision to enroll. Chloe Reierson and Bethany Messner both have students in the inaugural immersion class. 

“I knew that my daughter would like the immersion class, but I was surprised at how much,” said parent Chloe Reierson. “She comes home everyday telling us new words and sounds that she learned in both languages, which is so fun to see that she enjoys learning so much!”

“We chose the immersion program for our son because we see the value in knowing a second language,” added Bethany Messner, another parent. “This will be a wonderful asset someday in the work force and other life areas but we also liked the idea of our child being extra engaged, stimulated and challenged at school.”

Casey Prochniak’s daughter is also in the class. “From day one, our daughter came home trying to speak words in Spanish,” said Casey. “They may not have been correct right away, but she was trying.  Now, fifty-some days into school, she can recite the school motto and count to almost 40 in Spanish. On top of this, she is getting a complete Kindergarten education!”

Students learn Spanish through syllables and joining them together to make words. When they read, they can join those syllables together and are blending sounds, making words and being able to read short sentences. They are even bringing their learning out into the world with parents sharing that students have spoken in Spanish to servers at Mexican restaurants and showing off their language skills to family and friends. 

“I had one of the students greet me in the hall with ‘buenos dias, como estas?’ and we had a short conversation in Spanish and it was so fun,” said Principal Jennifer Thompson. “I am so excited that our students are becoming bilingual and becoming familiar with other cultures. This will help them develop a global perspective as they grow and develop in their understanding of the world.”

The class is made up of a diverse group of students, some who speak Spanish at home, some who know some Spanish but mostly speak English at home, and some who only spoke English. The teachers try not to translate too much for students, instead just repeating phrases and allowing students to help each other. There are also additional cultural elements brought into the classroom that allow Ms. Maldonado to share about Honduras, Ms. Zendejas to share about Mexico, as well as other Spanish speaking countries around the world. 

The program is beneficial for all students and allows Spanish speaking students to learn in their own language while also learning English as well as teaching English speakers a new language. The program will continue to grow one grade level at a time each year, creating a truly unique learning experience to GFW. 

“A program like this is normally seen at a larger or more urban district but our students deserve those same opportunities,” said Superintendent Horton. “The data around this is so exciting, but seeing it in our students in real life is absolutely amazing. This is the type of programming that allows us to Grow Future World Class Leaders who are capable of anything!”

Parents are excited to be a part of their child’s learning as well and have been asking teachers for more resources on how they can help at home. Teachers share videos and other resources each week to create a strong connection between the classroom and home. The excitement shown by students has been infectious and is a shining example of the mission and vision of GFW Public Schools.

“By having your child learn a second language at a young age, you are really opening doors for students,” said Ms. Maldonado. “My hope is that when these students graduate high school that they can be as confident as they are now to take on whatever the world throws at them. Starting school in a new language is so challenging and they did it with such excitement. That passion and sense of collaboration and community will serve them well.”