Becoming bilingual: Lawrence Township stresses language immersions in schools

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The Metropolitan School District of Lawrence Township has longest-standing dual language program in the state with Forest Glen Elementary, which opened in 1993. Now, the township is continuing its efforts in implementing dual language programs throughout the district.

Efforts are aided by a recent $50,000 grant from the Indiana Dept. of Education.

The program’s goal is for every student in Lawrence Township to have the opportunity to be biliterate. The initiative operates through one- and two-way programs, which determine the make-up of the class.

Gretchen Najarro learns biliteracy through Lawrence Townships dual language immersion program.

“In our two-way program, half the students are English speakers and half are Spanish speakers, and they are mutually having a language-shared experience,” MSDLT Language Programs Coordinator Erika Tran said. “And a one-way program is just made up of Spanish speakers. Whether students are in one-way or two-way, the goal of the program is biliteracy. So, we want our students to be bilingual and biliterate because it helps going into the workforce and becoming global citizens.”

Unlike some school districts that begin teaching new languages in middle or high school, MSDLT begins at the pre-kindergarten level.

“We opened pre-K classes last year and it goes through 12th grade,” Tran said. Beginning at the middle school level, English students have entire classes, such as language arts and social studies, taught in Spanish. At the high school level, classes taught in Spanish include culture, biology and math.

“The focus in a dual-language program is on oral literacy development, so you really want the students to be listening and speaking,” Tran said. “There’s a lot of repetition.”

Within MSDLT, 11 schools offer some sort of dual language program.

With the IDOE grant, Tran said the district plans to strengthen the initiative.

“The data coming out shows these programs are really solid,” Tran said. “Even for our second language learners in these programs, in the one-way program, they are outperforming their English-learning counterparts in the English-only programs. That’s on an English assessment.” 

Much of the grant money will be used for supplies to expand the program.

“It goes to trying to find bilingual books and curriculum books, not just translated from English but authentic literature, and also for professional development for our teachers to make sure they understand when we are onboarding them that they know what teaching biliteracy really means and what does that entail,” Tran said. “It’s not just a translation. The students are learning academic language. It’s not, ‘I’m going to teach this in English and teach the same thing in Spanish.’ One of the non-negotiables in dual-language classes is there isn’t any translation because you have to train the ear.”

Teachers sometimes add a visual component to aid students in recognizing which lessons will be in Spanish and which will be in English. Some teachers wear a colored apron for Spanish and a different color for English. Others wear colored scarves. 

Since Lawrence Township residents can apply to attend any of the township’s schools, even if one of the schools in a resident’s district doesn’t offer dual-language classes, students can attend one that does.

For more, visit ltschools.org

Claudia Gambetta, left, teaches a language immersion class at Harrison Hill Elementary.

Finding bilingual teachers

One of the challenges of offering dual-language classes throughout the Metropolitan School District of Lawrence Township is finding bilingual teachers.

“Fortunately for us, we have developed a partnership with a university in Puerto Rico, so we are in the early stages of that,” MSDLT Language Programs Coordinator Erika Tran said. “It has been really successful bringing quite a few teachers in from Puerto Rico. We really are recruiting from everywhere. We have brought teachers in from Peru, Guatemala and Venezuela.”

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