To enhance the big picture of their lives, Cardinal Valley Elementary is improving the littlest students’ initial engagement in school and building a solid academic foundation in their native language. Two of the five kindergarten classes this year comprise the new dual language program, which ensures Hispanic youngsters grasp the essentials in Spanish before tackling English and gain confidence for continued growth and success.
“Over 80 percent come to school not prepared and lack the pre-literacy skills, and 75 percent don’t speak the language of instruction,” said second-year Principal Matthew Spottswood, referring to results of the BRIGANCE kindergarten screening. After a year of researching possibilities and preparing the staff, Cardinal Valley launched the program this fall. It’s the first such effort in Fayette County Public Schools, which offers a magnet Spanish Immersion Program (at Maxwell Elementary, Bryan Station Middle and Bryan Station High) and optional immersion strands (Liberty and Northern elementaries). “We’ve got to meet our kids where they’re at,” Spottswood said. “We are a school of language learners.”
All the classroom teachers at Cardinal Valley are now GLAD-certified – for “guided language acquisition design” – and those two kindergarten teachers are native Spanish speakers. About 80 percent of their students’ instruction is in Spanish, primarily in reading and math, while specials classes like P.E. and music and the ESL sessions are conducted in English. The amount of English instruction will increase each year until third grade, when the breakdown reaches 50/50. “Other models exist where Spanish is completely eliminated, but we want our students to value their language, culture and history,” Spottswood said.
For participating kindergarteners, the new approach has made a marked difference. “The real goal is to teach them the content in a language they understand. Some of our kids are already beginning to read, and normally they’re not reading until the end of first grade,” the principal said. “In any other classroom, these kids would be nothing but confused and angry right now. Frustrated isn’t the word – more like defeated or crushed.”
One image that teachers Maria-Eugenia Serey and Alicia Coves use to gradually span the Spanish/English gap is that of a bridge, looking at the structure and functionality of language. For instance, a chart might list the days of the week side by side so kids can compare and contrast the words, or the youngsters might study words that are spelled the same such as “hospital.” Serey and Coves also cover such literacy basics as reading from left to right and turning a page to advance through a book, as well as recognizing fiction versus nonfiction.
“When they learn to read and write in their native language, they are able to transfer that to another language, and they are more successful later on,” Serey said. The dual language approach also bolsters students’ self-esteem and encourages family engagement with school. “We are sending homework, and the parents are getting involved and knowing what to do,” she reported. “Families can communicate and work together, and the kids are progressing very well. They want to show their homework, they want to participate in class, and they want to show what they know.”
Spottswood appreciates how these children now have a chance to excel. “What our program does is take a group of historically ‘disadvantaged’ students and gives them the advantage of being bilingual, bi-literate and bi-cultural.” He suggested the long-term impact will be measured by the number of students who graduate high school and enroll in college. “We are not in this game for test scores – we are not in this game for the short term. We are in this game to change the lives of our students forever,” he said. “The impacts will be lower numbers of high-school dropouts, teenage pregnancies, gang membership, incarceration rates. We are in the business of changing lives.”
Despite some expected growing pains, Cardinal Valley’s initiative has shown these children can thrive in the right learning environment. “We are excited about the progress and invigorated daily to continue on this path,” Spottswood said. “We believe this will be what levels the playing field for our kids who have been underserved for years. We’re breaking generational poverty and changing a community one kid at a time. Hopefully this changes their future.”