An elementary school in Alachua County will host its first bilingual immersion model next year for rising kindergarten students.
Terwilliger Elementary School, located at 3999 SW 122nd St., will become the first school in the district to offer both English and Spanish instruction in the classroom. Crystal Marull, the University of Florida’s online Spanish course coordinator, was disappointed to see limited availability for language instruction in the county.
“There is such a lack of language offerings for young children in Alachua to learn languages, to be exposed to languages and there are a lot of people interested,” Marull said. “It’s something that’s been slow in coming and shouldn’t have taken so long.”
Marull’s older children attended an English immersion school in Argentina when they were younger. She worries about her youngest son, 5, who has more difficulty speaking Spanish than his siblings. She worries that he won’t be able to connect with his grandparents every time they visit Argentina.
The immersion model will encourage bilingual, biliterate and bicultural students from kindergarten through fifth grade. A new kindergarten class will be selected by lottery each year after the 2022-2023 school year and is expected to enroll through fifth grade.
Dual language immersion can increase overall proficiency, bilingualism and equity from an early age, said Jesely Alvarez, director of Terwilliger at an open house Feb. 2. Students will develop communication skills in both languages, problem-solving skills and cultural awareness through the program,
Luis Alvarez-Castro, chair of UF’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese Studies, understands the benefits of early exposure to foreign languages for cognitive skills and multicultural awareness in young children.
“…Starting at 5 a.m. is already a little too late; the sooner the better,” Alvarez-Castro said. “Your child’s brain is really a sponge. It’s much easier for these children to master the language and become real bilingual people without an accent and with a much better command of grammar.
A research study conducted at MIT revealed that people who learn a new language between the ages of 10 and 18 will not achieve the same skills as native speakers. Studies have also revealed that bilingual and multilingual workers are in high demand, with 66% of recruiters agreeing that language skills will be increasingly important in the coming decades.
Alvarez-Castro also appreciates the impact the program will have on the community. He said there are many English-speaking students interested in the opportunity and heritage Spanish speakers who will benefit.
Studies have shown that students whose first language is Spanish and who are enrolled in a bilingual program often learn English faster and achieve higher academic results.
However, Alvarez-Castro wants the school, which is near the Oakmont and Haile Plantation neighborhoods, to be closer to downtown.
“We all know that traffic jams can be really, really bad in this area,” he said. “I’m afraid it’s a detractor and that…many kids who could benefit from this program don’t get the opportunity just because of it.”
Emily Hind, an associate professor of Spanish at UF, floated the idea of a bilingual school since before the pandemic at GNV4ALL meetings, the Gainesville Sun’s initiative to identify racial inequality and injustice in the county. When applications opened, she asked her son to attend the magnet school; however, she said she was not thrilled with the school’s location and wished it was closer to East Gainesville.
“I think as a county we need to think seriously about active transportation,” Hind said. “Lowering the speed limit seems to me the most obvious and least expensive thing we can do.”
Tatiana Bastian, 31, is a Newberry resident who wants to enroll her 2-year-old daughter in a bilingual school when she is older. Originally from Miami, Bastian grew up hearing a mixture of Spanish and English and realizes the importance of connecting with other cultures.
“I love to travel,” Bastian said. “I like the language. I love culture. I think it’s a really awesome way to connect and also stretch and strengthen your brain. So it’s something I wanted not just for myself, but definitely for my child.
Applications to join the magnet program for the 2022-2023 school year close at 4 p.m. Friday.