The Rise of Dual-Language Education in Delaware

As students in special programs across the state prove, talk about the benefits of learning a second language isn’t doublespeak.


Slowly but steadily, a growing group of Delaware public school students is getting practical exposure to 21st-century skills and global competencies.

Starting in kindergarten.

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It can be a little unsettling to hear a grade school principal, such as Kelly Dorman at East Millsboro Elementary, say, “Even at this age, we’re already thinking about them becoming college and career ready.”

But that’s the path being taken this year by more than 5,000 youngsters who are enrolled in dual-language immersion programs at charter and traditional public schools from Claymont to Frankford.

Seven elementary schools offer immersion programs in Chinese. Twenty-six, plus two charters, offer programs in Spanish. And the Greek-themed Odyssey Charter School this fall launched a pilot immersion program in Greek for some of its kindergarten students.

“Do we have the skills to live and thrive in an ever-changing, quickly paced society?” asks Gregory Fulkerson, director of the language acquisition workgroup at the Delaware Department of Education.

Learning a second language at an early age, and perhaps a third one while still in high school, is one way to develop those skills.

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“We’re preparing students for a future that is unknown to us,” says Lynn Fulton-Archer, a specialist in world language immersion at the department. “By leaving high school with proficiency in two or more languages, they are better able to understand different perspectives and have a great understanding of diversity. They’re flexible thinkers, willing to take risks and able to succeed in different types of environments.”

It is, however, too soon to tell how this will all work out. The immersion programs, announced by former Gov. Jack Markell in 2011 and begun on a pilot basis at three schools the following year, haven’t sent their first students into middle school yet. While Las Americas Aspira Academy, a pioneering dual-language charter that opened in Newark in 2011, has advanced three classes onto high school, its original kindergarten students are now only in seventh grade.

But the early results are encouraging.

According to principals and administrators up and down the state, children enrolled in immersion programs are performing as well as or better than their peers who are taking traditional classes on the state’s Smarter Balanced assessment program or other assessment measures used at the district level. (Since the programs are being added gradually, only 10 of the 35 participating schools had immersion students taking the statewide assessment in 2017.)

And Trish Prettyman, principal at Downes Elementary in Newark, offers another statistic that cannot be ignored: Though more than 60 percent of all Downes third-graders scored proficient in math on Smarter Balanced in 2017, a whopping 88 percent of the third-graders in the immersion program achieved that benchmark.

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Except for several supporting lessons from their English-speaking teacher, she says, “they learned math totally in Chinese.”

Similarly, Dorman sees her students at East Millsboro meeting or beating expectations. “The amazing part of it,” she says, “is that when you look at a child’s performance at grade level, to have learned those concepts in a different language, it’s pretty exceptional.”

Educators across the state agree that, almost by definition, dual-language immersion programs are more rigorous than the regular curriculum, if only because students must not only learn a second language, but also to think and understand concepts that are first presented to them in a language that isn’t typically used in their homes.

Immersion programs can be structured in several ways. The two Spanish-language charters, Las Americas Aspira and Academia Antonia Alonso in Wilmington, use a model that differs from the one the traditional public schools are using for both Spanish and Chinese immersion.

In the traditional public schools, students spend half the day learning in English and half the day learning in Spanish or Chinese. Typically, English language arts and social studies are taught in English, and math and science are taught in the world language.

At the charter schools, students take all subjects in both languages, with classes conducted on alternating days in English and Spanish.

Both formats employ a team-teaching approach—they pair an English-speaking teacher with one who delivers instruction in Spanish or Chinese, so each teacher is responsible for two groups of 20 to 25 students. Teachers typically have their own classrooms, and students move from one to the other, depending on the language being taught.

The partnerships involve collaborations on just about every aspect of school life.

Take instruction. In the charter schools’ model, with the same subject being taught in both languages, one teacher has to know where the other left off the day before and which aspects of the previous day’s lesson need reinforcement.

“It’s good when the kids say, ‘Oh, we did this yesterday,’” says Jeannie Negron, who teaches kindergarten in Spanish at Las Americas Aspira. “It means they made the connection.”

Such connections may be a little more subtle in the traditional public schools, where different subjects are taught in different languages. So, if the week’s science lessons, taught in Spanish or Chinese, are covering plant life, the English language arts teacher might reinforce the topic by having her class read and discuss a book about trees.

To help younger children make an easier adjustment, classrooms are arranged in nearly identical fashion. “Posters with the classroom rules are in the same place in each room,” says Jeff Sheehan, principal at South Dover Elementary School, where 207 of the 593 students are enrolled in the Spanish immersion program. Similarly, areas devoted to specific subjects are situated in the same sections of each room.

The paired teachers also have to employ a similar, if not identical, rules structure in the classrooms. “You don’t want a double set of standards,” says Prettyman, the Downes principal.

Despite the name of the program, teachers can’t adopt a sink-or-swim mentality, especially with younger children and at the start of the school year.

“My father thought the best way to teach me how to swim was to throw me in at the deep end of the pool, but that doesn’t work here,” says Margie Lopez-Waite, head of school at Las Americas Aspira.

If children don’t know a word and its meaning in English, she says, they can’t be expected to know it in Spanish.

“I use a lot of body language, a lot of pictures, a lot of movement,” says Negron. “If I say ‘listen’—that’s escucha in Spanish—and point to my ear, they’ll get it.”

By Thanksgiving, Lopez-Waite says, the kindergartners have pretty well adapted to their new learning environment.

Though immersion programs are, by their nature, more demanding than a single-language curriculum, participants are not selected as they might be for a school’s honors or gifted program.

If the school in a child’s attendance area is offering a dual-language program, students are given the opportunity to apply when they enter kindergarten or first grade. Otherwise, they apply through the state’s choice program, which permits students to choose a school other than the one that serves their attendance area, provided space is available. At charter schools, lotteries are conducted if there are more applicants than available seats.

“We try to maintain the same demographics [in immersion programs] as we do in our regular classrooms,” says Darren Guido, supervisor of instruction in the Caesar Rodney School District. If students in an immersion class were standing on the playground alongside those from a regular class, an observer wouldn’t be able to notice any difference, he says.

Parents must make the decision to have their child enter an immersion program when the child begins school. That’s because schools generally will not admit a child into the program after December of first grade. Students entering after that date would be too far behind their peers to catch up, educators say. Exceptions are made only when a child speaks Spanish or Chinese fluently at home or when a child is transferring in from an immersion program in another school system.

As the immersion programs grow, three issues loom: funding, teacher recruiting and establishing a curriculum model for middle school and high school.

This year’s state budget squeeze did not impact funding for participating schools. The state provides each school with $10,000 for planning in the year before it starts its program, then $20,000 for books, supplies and materials for each year a new grade is added. Funding for teacher salaries comes through the state unit count formula and the districts’ local salary supplements.

Recruiting teachers, especially those who can teach Chinese, has been challenging, and could become more difficult as the need increases as schools add a grade a year to their programs.

“Appoquinimink and Colonial started kindergarten programs this year, and I lost a teacher I had had for four years to Appoquinimink,” Prettyman says.

Though competition may be intense, Delaware is becoming an attractive location for Chinese- and Spanish-speaking teachers “because our programs are well established, and teachers from across the country are seeing our success and the support we provide,” Fulton-Archer says. However, because of visa issues, teachers who are natives of China or Spain are not in the position to make a career of teaching in the state.

To help get the programs started, Delaware’s Department of Education signed memorandums of understanding with the Spanish Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport and the Chinese Language Council International, better known as Hanban, which have agreed to provide teachers for the programs.

Residents of China and Spain are still being hired, with Department of Education and school district officials using Skype to conduct initial interviews, but “domestic recruitment gets stronger every year,” Fulton-Archer says.

This year, 12 new teachers arrived from Spain, all on three-year visas, but the new Chinese teachers hired were already in the United States, either as a U.S. citizen, a spouse of a U.S. citizen or on an extension of a student visa, Fulton-Archer says.

When new teachers arrive in Delaware from China or Spain, they receive a week of training from the Department of Education to learn about the school system and additional training at their district. School administrators and teachers arrange short-term housing for the teachers until they can find a permanent residence, take them to area attractions and provide advice on such mundane matters as where to buy groceries.

The next step for the immersion programs will be the rollout of a middle school curriculum, due to start next year for students now in fifth grade in both languages in the Caesar Rodney schools and in Spanish at Lewis Elementary in Red Clay.

The format will change somewhat. Participants will take social studies and language arts in their target language and all their other classes in English in sixth and seventh grades. In eighth grade, science will be taught in the target language, and social studies will be taught in English.

Details of a high school curriculum are still being worked out, Fulkerson says. In ninth grade, students would take an Advanced Placement class in Spanish or Chinese.

For grades 10 through 12, the state is working with the University of Delaware to develop a dual-credit/dual-enrollment program so students could take college-level classes and earn credit for them at their high schools.

“In theory, if they do well on the AP exam and the dual-enrollment classes, students could be one class short of earning a minor” in their language before setting foot on campus, Fulkerson says. (For the budget conscious, that could also mean graduating in less than four years and saving a semester’s worth of tuition.)

Meanwhile, students who have completed eighth grade at Las Americas Aspira are grappling with the reality of not being able to continue immersion studies in high school.

The two children of Cathy Rodriguez, the school’s Spanish immersion instruction coach, have graduated. They now attend MOT Charter School. Her son, in 11th grade, is taking fourth-year Spanish; her daughter, in ninth grade, is taking third-year Spanish.

“Aspira is a pioneer. As educators, we need to push, we need to be advocates for expanding dual-language programs,” she says.

Lopez-Waite, the head of school, says she is having discussions with officials of the Christina School District, where most of Aspira’s students live, about the possibility of extending dual-language instruction into one of the district’s high schools.

Currently, about half of the school’s graduates enroll in charter schools, primarily MOT, Newark and Delaware Military Academy, she says. The other half tends toward vocational-technical programs, such as those offered at St. Georges Technical High School.

Though the Spanish and Chinese immersion programs are becoming firmly established, Odyssey Charter has expanded its Greek language offerings with an immersion program for some of its kindergarten students. Until this year, all students had been taking a Greek language class and math in Greek daily, plus a class in Greek culture every fourth day. This year, Head of School Nick Manolakos says, two kindergarten classes are participating in a pilot program in which half of their instruction (Greek language and math) will be in Greek, and the rest in English. A linguistics professor has been imported from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece to help Odyssey develop the program, which the school hopes to expand to all grades.

One of the benefits of dual-language instruction is the ability it gives students to adapt to unfamiliar situations.

Last year, Guido says, fourth-graders studying Chinese at Caesar Rodney schools took a field trip to Washington, D.C., where they visited the Chinese Embassy and the Chinatown neighborhood.

“It’s a big thing, using your language in a real-world setting,” Guido says. “People are amazed that our fourth graders can communicate as well as they do.”

Anthony Muscelli, a seventh-grader at Las Americas Aspira, remembers speaking Spanish while traveling to Mexico with his family after he completed second grade. “I thought I did pretty good talking to the natives,” he says, noting that he would order meals in restaurants and ask directions on how to get to places they wanted to visit.

Keiry Oquendo, a fifth-grade student at Las Americas Aspira, notes that Spanish speakers—both students and adults—“feel included, they don’t feel left out” when they can speak with others in their native tongue.

Learning to think—as well as to speak, read and write—in a second language poses its own challenge. “It’s like I have two minds: a Spanish mind and an English mind,” says fifth-grader Cadesh Odou.

For students whose primary language is Spanish, the immersion program represents a better option than programs for English language learners, in which students are given additional instruction in English but are otherwise in classrooms where they struggle to understand what the teacher is saying, says Audrey Carey, supervisor of elementary instruction in Indian River School District.

“They’re working at grade level, receiving some instruction in their native language,” she says.

Or, as South Dover principal Sheehan, puts it, “It’s better to spend a half day in your native language and a half day in a language you don’t understand than most of the day in a language you don’t understand.”

Rebecca Kalmbach, a language teacher in the Appoquinimink School District, is impressed with the fluency her son, Thurman, a fourth-grader at Downes, has developed in Chinese. “It’s really something to listen to him using the language outside of class with his friends,” she says.

Thurman’s success prompted Rebecca and Michael Kalmbach to enroll their daughter, Maeve, in the Chinese program when she entered kindergarten at Downes this fall.

While she hopes both her children will be able to make use of their second language later in life, she is concerned about one issue confronting many English-speaking parents.

“I can only imagine how they’ll take advantage of this, for better or worse, when they’re teenagers,” she says. 

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