With the opening of school Monday, Orange County Schools joined nearby districts such as Chapel Hill-Carrboro, Durham, Wake and Chatham in offering a dual-language immersion program.
The program will start with 48 kindergarten students at New Hope Elementary School learning Spanish and English and will grow each year as those students advance. Each class will have 24 students.
Dual-language classes are exempt from state class-size restrictions. The students receive half of the instruction in English and half in Spanish. New Hope principal Ambra Wilson told the Orange County Schools Board of Education on Monday that half the students in the program are native English speakers and half are native Spanish speakers, which mirrors the overall population of the school.
“Enrollment for this year balanced out beautifully,” Wilson said. “Actually, we couldn’t have gotten it any better. It ended up exactly balanced in gender, exactly balanced in native language, and we also had good racial balance.”
The students were selected in two lotteries: one for native English speakers and one for native Spanish speakers. Wilson said she was excited that two students declined seats at Hillsborough Elementary to participate in New Hope’s dual language program. In the most recent state report cards for schools, Hillsborough received a B overall while New Hope got a C.
“That meant a lot to me,” Wilson said, “that finally we have something that makes them want to be there.”
There are 15 students on the waiting list and there are three special-needs students among those accepted.
The program’s two teachers this inaugural year are Holli Wallace, a former exceptional children teacher for OCS, and Luis Rios, a former English as a second language teacher for OCS. Wilson said they enjoy working together and see eye to eye on instructional matters.
Each class will alternate between the two teachers, with Rios giving instruction in Spanish one day and Wallace in English the next. Rios said he’s excited to see Spanish-speaking parents comfortably volunteering in classes.
“It’s honoring them,” he said. “It’s acknowledging their culture.” He said that even as an undergraduate student visiting the school he envisioned a dual-language Spanish program at New Hope, given its high percentage of Latino students. “So it’s really exciting that it’s finally here,” Rios said. “We’re doing it.”
Wallace said her background teaching exceptional children made her eager to teach students of all backgrounds. She also said she was looking forward to the collaborative nature of the program.
“It’s really impacted me,” Wallace said, “to think about the fact that so many students missed this opportunity and the fact that we get to be a part of breaking down those barriers.”
Dual-language immersion programs have at times been controversial in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, especially the Mandarin program at Glenwood Elementary. Detractors have argued that it takes resources away from mainstream instruction.
OCS administration says it has spent $15,000 on resources for its dual-language program. Board member Will Atherton asked what accommodations will be made for these students in five years when they age out of the program and reach middle school where they’re way ahead of the rest of the students in Spanish.
“There are a number of different models” Superintendent Todd Wirt said, “and we’ve done some research on some of those and have had some initial conversations. … We certainly have some time to build that model.”