First in a series exploring local education budget initiatives

Next year, a group of Cale Elementary students may spend half the school day learning in Spanish.

At a recent parent information session at Cale, principal Lisa Jones and Albemarle County School’s world languages facilitator Russell Carlock introduced a proposal to pilot a dual language immersion program.

“We have known forever that language is best taught in the early years,” Jones said. “You have that window of time to do it in, yet we do it backwards all the time.”

Jones and Carlock said Cale’s curriculum would not change under the “two-way” immersion program, but that instruction would occur half the time in English and half the time in Spanish. In addition, the immersion classroom would be 50 percent native English speakers and 50 percent native Spanish speakers.

“The kind of day students have is going to be the same, just half of it is going to be taught in Spanish,” Jones said. “You will learn about a tree in another language, and still learn the same things about a tree.”

“All students graduate from these programs with bilingualism or near bilingualism by the time they go to middle school,” Carlock said.

Cale Elementary already implements Spanish language instruction differently than other County Schools. Cale uses a Foreign Language in Elementary Schools (FLES) model that began in 2012.

In the current model, kindergarten and first grade students learn for two hours per week in Spanish. Jones’ mantra of this model is, “they do not learn Spanish, they learn in Spanish.”

Cale parent Anna Emory believes bilingualism is relevant for students today.

“Only speaking one language really is the new illiteracy, and our kids will be faced with that reality,” Emory said. “We are behind as a nation in teaching multiple languages and I am excited we are reversing that trend in Albemarle County and at Cale.”

“We have two years under our belts. Principal Jones has a passion for this and it is contagious,” Emory added. “The teachers and other parents I have talked to are excited about this program and want to see it grow.”

In the 2014-2015 school year, Jones hopes to see the world languages program expand at Cale to serve the second grade, and also pilot the two-way immersion program to a limited number of students in grades K-2.   

But implementing the pilot immersion program and expanding FLES to the second grade are contingent upon new funding.

As proposed by County Executive Tom Foley, the FY15 budget leaves a $5.8 million shortfall between the School Board’s requested funding and financial support from local government.

Albemarle Superintendent Pam Moran has already compiled a list of options for closing the budget shortfall. Among these would be increasing class sizes and cutting about $137,000 for two new full-time equivalent positions to support Cale’s world languages program.

Developing a county-wide K-12 world languages program is a strategic priority adopted by the School Board in 2012, and one that would require continuing financial support.

“Providing FLES instruction county-wide would cost as much as $300 per elementary school student per year,” Carlock said. “Expanding world languages in elementary schools countywide will depend heavily on future budget decisions and priorities set by the school board.”

“In the past two years, Cale has been courageous in supporting this new pilot,” Jones said. “We have a unique opportunity to provide instruction for all students to excel in language and thrive in a global world.”

Decisions about class sizes and new initiative funding will determine Cale’s staffing for next school year and thereby how much flexibility Jones has to hire new bilingual Spanish and English-speaking staff to expand the language program. 

“Everything is intertwined when you look at staffing and funding,” Jones said. “I may end up with zero vacancies and I would be hindered in the pieces [of the language program] I can do.”

“We have seen so much growth out of all our children in the first few years of this,” Jones said. “Once you know something is good and the right thing, you don’t let it go easily.”

Right now, this means planning for multiple scenarios that might play out as the budget is discussed, so that Cale is prepared to move forward when the final decisions are made in April.

Jones and Carlock are asking parents of students currently in the FLES instruction to fill out applications to the immersion program if they are interested and will be reaching out to rising Kindergarten parents soon. Carlock says some applications have been submitted already.

“There are a lot of eyes on Cale right now,” Principal Jones said. “If we can be successful at Cale I see that as paving the way for other schools.”