Dual-language immersion program takes root at Endy

Endy Elementary students interact with Costa Rican students via live video chat.

ALBEMARLE –– A class of 20 kindergarten students at Endy Elementary are participating in a new program that allows them to learn Spanish by being immersed in the language throughout the day.

Endy’s dual-language immersion program (DLI), the first of its kind in the county, is designed to give students, both native English speakers and those learning English, academic skills by immersing them in a bilingual atmosphere starting in kindergarten.

The program is set up in a “90/10” structure, with 90% of the students’ day taught in Spanish — including lessons on math, literacy, science and social studies — and the remaining 10% taught in English — with classes focused on music, art and library.

To help introduce DLI, Stanly County Schools partnered with Participate Learning, a company that brings educators from other countries to the U.S. to teach on visas. 

Costa Rican native Milena Vasquez and Colombian native Karol Garcia both teach the inaugural class at Endy

“The idea is that while they are learning a new language, they covered the standards, and they also learn about culture,” Vasquez told Stanly County Journal in an interview. “Also, we as international teachers make video conferences with kids from our countries and make activities that involve the community, so they can all learn about our countries.”

In late November, the Endy kindergarteners participated in a live video discussion with 23 students from New Hope School in Santa Bárbara, Costa Rica, a school where Vasquez used to work. The classes, despite being 1,762 miles apart, were able to engage with each other about their languages and cultures.

“Seeing the students having a conversation with other students and interacting by asking questions using Spanish and English was amazing,” Vasquez said. “They noticed that in Costa Rica, the students have school uniforms and that people are different. All the students were very motivated and really enjoyed it.”

According to research conducted by Participate Learning, students involved with DLI generate higher test scores than students outside of the program. Their studies have shown that bilingual students often excel greatly with reading comprehension and decision-making skills. 

Dr. Jeff James, superintendent of Stanly County Schools, told SCJ he is pleased with the new program so far and plans to expand it to first grade next year, while also adding another instructor.

“We’ve learned in recent years with brain development, it makes a significant difference to begin early,” James said on learning languages. “We started at Endy because it’s the geographic center of the county and we’ve had students come over from all over the county to participate in the program.”

James said he’s seen firsthand the impact of DLI by talking to local parents who are amazed at how well their kids have started to understand the Spanish language at the young age of five. 

“By fifth grade, these kids will be amazing,” he said. “Actually, in a county that we went to visit, the fifth graders competed with high school AP Spanish students and out-performed them in a head-to-head competition.”

Nationally, there are up to 2,000 DLI programs, and North Carolina is among the states with a rapidly-growing presence in elementary schools.