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WATERLOO — A dual-language immersion program started at Lou Henry Elementary in September is growing and expanding to a second school.

There will be a kindergarten and a first-grade class at Lou Henry next fall where students are taught in French for half a day and in English the other half. The program, which started with a kindergarten class, was believed to be the first French dual-language program in the state.

In addition, Highland Elementary School will start a dual Spanish-English immersion program in the fall with both a kindergarten and first-grade class. Spanish makes up the largest group of native speakers after English among the approximately 40 languages spoken by Waterloo Community Schools’ students.

District officials have spent years preparing to launch Spanish dual-language immersion classes.

“This is our third year of planning,” said Charles McNulty, associate superintendent for educational services. “The framework, the structure is in place.”

Some of that planning enabled the district to quickly start the French-English class when officials realized they would need a fourth kindergarten section at Lou Henry last fall.

The school has become a main attendance center for families who immigrated to Waterloo from Africa’s Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the official language is French.

Immigrant children from the country accounted for 10 of those who started in the class. The other 12 were native English speakers. Three weeks ago, another Congolese kindergartner started at the school and joined the class.

One day last week, teacher Gail Farber reviewed what the students have been learning this year. She wrote a sentence in French about the day of the week and went around the room asking students to read it. As they did, she responded with a “très bien“ and handed each student a Skittle candy.

Farber went on to have the students count in French up to 20 and by 10s to 100. She put up pictures with the phrase “Quel est le contraire de ...“ so students would tell her what its opposite was. She even led the students in a series of sing-alongs to French language children’s music videos.

She co-teaches with Kelley Lattimer, who leads English language lessons in the class. Farber started around Nov. 1 after the original French teacher left the position.

“I used to have to take it bit-by-bit,” she said, of teaching a sentence, phrase or numbers. Now, “they speak French, they know the right answers.” And they already sound like budding native speakers.

“Their accents are so beautiful,” said Farber. “At this age, they hear it. They don’t even know they have beautiful accents.”

She added, “I’m really proud of them. They’re in a good place next year to expand their knowledge.”

The Congolese students knew varying degrees of English when they started, said Lattimer, and are learning at a similar pace as the native English speakers.

“I would say at this point they are all bilingual to some degree,” she noted. The children can say phrases in either language and a lot of them are reading in English and French.

“There’s definitely been some challenges,” added Lattimer. “It took a while for the English-speaking students to understand they were supposed to be listening and taking it in. It took a while for their ears to be trained.”

Administrators said the students were Lou Henry’s highest achieving kindergarten class on spring formative literacy assessments.

Next fall, Lattimer will continue teaching the English portion of the kindergarten class. English language proficiency teacher Sondra Simar will lead the French lessons in both the kindergarten and first-grade classrooms. Farber worked as an ELP teacher at Lincoln Elementary School prior to the dual-immersion class and is returning to that position.

Gearing up to expand the program to Highland has included the addition of a full-time dual-language immersion instructional coach to work with teachers at both schools. Kara Rash, a West High School Spanish teacher, has been hired for the position.

Stephanie Mohorne, who is replacing McNulty as he leaves for another job, said Highland was chosen to launch the Spanish-English immersion classes due to the number of Hispanic students in the attendance area.

“They have one of (the highest) if not the highest population of native Spanish speakers,” she said, among district elementary schools. As the Highland and Lou Henry students progress through elementary school, another grade will be added each year.

Mohorne doesn’t know yet how far the program will expand beyond elementary schools. There could be some logistical problems as students move on to middle school where they begin changing classes each hour. However, as a Spanish major in college, she was familiar with a dual-language immersion program that went through eighth grade.

“That’s a little bit down the road right now,” noted Mohorne. “But I know it’s possible because I’ve seen it myself.”


Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Courier

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