SALISBURY — Isenberg Elementary School approaches language a little differently than other schools in the county.
Some students spend their days learning primarily in English like other schools, but other cohorts at a few grade levels take their lessons in English and Spanish.
This is part of the dual language immersion program at Isenberg. Students in the program receive all the same lessons as traditional students, but they are split between two languages. The program began in the 2019-2020 school year with its first cohort of kindergarten students.
In 2020-21, the program added grade one and this school year it added grade two. Everything is planned to extend to third grade next year and so on until the program includes every grade level.
The program is designed for those who are English speakers first and those who use it as a second language. The immersion part in both languages is essential.
“These kids are doing their academic content, rigorous academic content, in Spanish, so they’re not just learning the language, but they’re learning it in context,” said Isenberg principal Tabitha Miller.
Miller said the program helps children acquire all four language modalities: reading, writing, listening and speaking.
Miller was hired to take over at Isenberg in November. She said she was also, in a sense, the product of an immersion program.
The summer after her freshman year of high school, she went to a Spanish state academy in Virginia. Students in the program only spoke Spanish for one month.
“Spoken, wrote, read, everything we did,” Miller said, adding that students weren’t even allowed to call home and talk in English, although they could write letters for a while. hour every night.
She went from having a basic understanding of the language to fluency and scoring in the highest bracket of the Advanced Placement Spanish exam thanks to the program.
She had an affinity for languages at school and she wanted to learn Spanish at the same level as her English.
“There’s just something about having that experience,” Miller said. “It’s just different, it makes the world different.”
She started as a high school Spanish teacher and later worked with immersion programs. She said she was able to improve a dual-language immersion (DLI) program in California and also had good results with students learning English.
Miller said elementary school is the perfect time to teach a second language, although children can start even earlier in pre-K. She highlighted the benefits of knowing more than one language such as cognitive flexibility, higher self-esteem, benefit in society, and cultural awareness.
Isenberg is a Title I school, which means many students come from economically disadvantaged families, and Miller said that means younger students are less likely to have the opportunity to travel or have a global experience. .
For years, Isenberg has marketed itself as a global school, and next year the DLI program will have teachers from the United States, Colombia, Argentina, and Honduras.
Immersion programs are not new. There are over 200 programs in North Carolina and they have been around for decades.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for enrollment in the Isenberg program. The Post first published a brief profile on this in the second half of January 2020, when there was a waiting list, but that initial cohort dwindled to 17 students.
When the pandemic began, students from the first cohort began dropping out of the program, citing difficulties keeping up with the remote learning that has become the norm for most of 2020 and 2021.
“It dropped mainly because it was really difficult for parents and the immersion isn’t ideal when it’s online,” Miller said. “In person, it’s really important for immersion.”
But now, enrollment in the program is replenishing and the lower grade cohorts are larger. The school expects a new kindergarten cohort of around 40 students, the size of the original class, this coming school year and the program reverts to a 50/50 split between English and Spanish over the course of the next school year.
Some students will also join the freshman cohort. For bilingual programs, Miller said it’s generally best to limit new entries to the program in the first year.
The program took a predominantly Spanish approach for its first cohort when they moved into the second year to recover the progress lost by Spanish students. When these students move into third grade, they will revert to an equal split with a teacher teaching in both Spanish and English.
The program is also working on its partnership with the firm Participate Learning, which finds teachers from other countries. The company sends coordinators and coaches to work with the schools.
IDD Grade 2 teacher Johana Vargas is originally from Colombia and was recruited by Participate Learning.
She spends most of the day with her class and only teaches them in Spanish. She said the mornings started with class work and a meeting. Then there are activities, reading books, weekly vocabulary exercises like using words in sentences, and learning grammar concepts like prefixes.
For example, Vargas said last week that one of the vocabulary words was extraterrestrialwhich literally translates to alien.
“A lot of words have a cognate, and they realize that,” Vargas said.
They also work on social studies, math, and science in Spanish.
Vargas said his students learning Spanish can talk about their needs and observations in Spanish. They can also answer questions about themselves.
Vargas said his Spanish learners pay close attention and have to be diligent when they are in school. There are also a handful of native Spanish speakers in the class.
Vargas said that in Colombia, many of his classes are taught to students in English, as students are expected to learn a second language.
Heather Nardone has been teaching the English side of kindergarten classes since the program began.
“The COVID situation drove him crazy,” Nardone said.
When blended learning was happening, her time with students in person each week was limited. But on a positive note, she said parents now seem more engaged in their children’s learning and are excited about the program.
Tynesia Watson received information about the program when her son Jaeson was preparing to enter kindergarten in first grade. It interested her, so she sought to register it. She said it was compelling because the direction of the world and community seems to favor multilingualism.
“There are several jobs now, even the ones I applied for, where they lean more toward those who are bilingual,” Watson said.
Jaeson was also learning some Spanish at his daycare before starting kindergarten.
Watson said the pandemic had given him some doubts and it was difficult to keep up with Spanish work at home.
“We had to do a lot of Google Translate and I just had to repeat to the teacher that we’re not a Spanish-speaking household,” Watson said.
She said missing in-person instruction made it difficult to the point that she spoke to the administration about removing him from the program, but the family was convinced to stick with it while the school was working on improving its virtual delivery.
“Although my husband and I were ready to take my baby out of the program, he really enjoyed it,” Watson said.
She said her current concern is that third-year standardized tests will be given in English, although the second-year cohort has mainly taken classes in Spanish this year.
Jaeson said he enjoys learning Spanish words and thinks it’s cool to be able to talk a bit with people in another language.
“I’m good with English and I learn a lot of Spanish that way,” Jaeson said.
Math is his favorite subject, and much of his work involves word problems in Spanish. He said he could understand the problems and solve them.
“It was tough at first when I got to second grade,” Jaeson said.
Sometimes he struggles to understand the Spanish lessons, but with the help of his teacher, he understands.