Africa Dutor’s kindergarten classroom is much like any other in the United States — the walls are covered in crayon drawings, the floor features a colorful carpet and the kindergartners sit together around low tables, working on an assignment.
Yet her class — with 50 percent native English speaking students and 50 percent native Spanish speaking students — is taught entirely in Spanish.
“It’s not easy,” Dutor, a teacher of 20 years and native of Spain, said. “When they come here, half of my students don’t know any words of Spanish, so they don’t understand at all.”
But halfway through the school year, the students have begun speaking to each other in Spanish as they learn together.
“Now this point is when you start seeing progress and how they’re learning the new language,” Dutor said.
“You start seeing them understand everything’s that’s going on.”
Dutor started teaching in Southwest Elementary School’s Two-Way Language Immersion Program four years ago, after moving to North Carolina from Spain.
Southwest, located in the Durham Public Schools district, began its dual language program in 2002. It currently extends from kindergarten to fourth grade, with about 145 students participating.
The program creates classrooms at each grade level in which half the students are native English speakers and the other half is made up of native Spanish speakers. The classes are taught mostly in Spanish, with the goal of having students be bilingual when they exit the program.
Southwest Principal Nicholas Rotosky sees several benefits in the program.
“Our students leave elementary school able to read, write, speak and listen to two languages — without sacrificing academic success in English. They also have exposure to and experience interacting with many different cultures in our diverse school community,” Rotosky said.
While other North Carolina school districts coordinate dual language programs on the district level, Southwest is the only school in DPS with a dual language program.
“It’s a very grassroots program — it started with one teacher who was really interested in doing it and implementing it with her group of students, and it kind of grew from there,” Laurel Stolte, program coordinator and English as a Second Language teacher, said.
Stolte believes there are benefits and disadvantages to having the program run entirely by the school.
“It’s great because it gets parents engaged and teachers engaged, but at the same time there’s a lot of things with the dual language program that take a lot of coordination at the district level, and we don’t have that,” Stolte said.
Despite the lack of other dual language programs within Durham Public Schools, Stolte and dual language teachers at Southwest work with districts outside of their own to improve lesson plans and teaching techniques.
To improve the program, Stolte would like to see it expanded into both the middle school level and into other elementary schools in the district.
“It takes four to seven years to really get academic language down, which means you really need to go into middle school if you’re going to have a strong program where every kid comes out being bilingual,” Stolte said.
Charles Aiken is the executive director of Chatham County Schools’ dual language program. The district offers the program at two elementary schools, one middle school and one high school.
Aiken said that reception by parents has been positive.
“For our native English-speaking parents, it’s extremely popular,” Aiken said.
Parents at first value the program for its fostering of bilingualism in children and later, says Aiken, for its promotion of cross-culturalism.
“I think what we hear a lot is that there’s the initial love of the idea of their child becoming bilingual, but I think we also hear a lot about the integrating of communities — and one of the things we say is bilingual but also bicultural and biliterate.” Aiken said.
“I think that’s something that a lot of people don’t get at first — they just think, ‘Oh, my child’s going to learn how to speak Spanish.’”
Native Spanish-speaking parents have also showed enthusiasm for the program, but for different reasons.
“I think, from (Spanish-speaking parents), what we hear a lot is the deep appreciation that we are working to validate those skills their children bring to us. Even though (the children) don’t speak English, they do speak a language, and in that they have a basis of knowledge,” Aiken said.
Katie Kizzie — an assistant teacher at Southwest — has a daughter in the school’s Dual Language program at the third grade level.
After a period of adaptation, Kizzie says her daughter has come to enjoy the program.
“Initially, in kindergarten, there was a little apprehension on her part — especially coming in with the teacher speaking Spanish and her not understanding anything; but as the years have gone by, her Spanish skills have skyrocketed,” Kizzie said.
“I don’t think she’d want to be in other class—she really enjoys the dual language program.”
Next year, Rotosky says Southwest hopes to bring the program to the fifth grade. Although it is likely the program will be implemented, changes will have to be made to account for the increased amount of standardized testing fifth graders undergo.
Chatham County Schools’ dual language program is looking to make expansions of its own. This month, Aiken says, the program will give a presentation to the district school board to discuss implementing the program in a second middle school and, later, a second high school.
Elsewhere in the Research Triangle, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools offers a Spanish dual language program at two elementary schools and two middle schools and a Mandarin immersion program at Glenwood Elementary School.
Kizzie saw practical benefits in enrolling her daughter in the program.
“I think in today’s world — especially in 2016 to 2017 — and thinking ahead into her future as an adult and getting into employment, I always felt it was very important she would be bilingual because I know I struggled with learning another language in high school and college,” Kizzie said.
“We thought it would be very important career wise — and, as you get older you want to travel, see the world, and with her speaking Spanish, going into a Spanish-speaking country—that opens doors.”