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Kindergartners Gain Immersion Pilot Program

When Lake Anne Elementary School reopens next September, Fairfax County Public School officials will be watching the progress of one kindergarten class in particular.

Lake Anne will be the site of a new pilot program in which students spend a full day at school, speaking English during half of the day, and Spanish during the other half. Although there is a similar program in place at Key Elementary in Arlington, no Fairfax County schools currently offer foreign language immersion at the kindergarten level. According to Karen Singer, foreign language coordinator with Fairfax County Public Schools, the idea for the kindergarten pilot program was first proposed by Schools Superintendent Daniel Domenech.

Singer said the program is driven by the philosophy that, "The earlier children can be exposed to a foreign language, the better."

She said that over the summer school officials will be developing a set of criteria to evaluate the pilot program. The criteria will include teacher evaluations, along with student attitudes toward the instruction. If the program is successful, it may be expanded to other schools in the county.

"There is not yet a plan to expand the program, but I think a lot of communities will be looking at this," Singer said.

ONLY KINDERGARTNERS within the boundaries of Lake Anne Elementary School will be eligible for the program. Parents will be sent applications for the program over the summer. Students in the class will be chosen in a lottery. Half of the students will speak Spanish in their homes, while the other half will speak English.

Singer said Lake Anne was chosen for the program for its ethnic diversity. According to Lake Anne principal Michelle Graves, half of all Lake Anne students speak Spanish as their first language, while the other half speak English primarily. Graves, who just finished her first year as Lake Anne’s principal, spoke with county officials throughout the year, asking for additional Spanish language programs at the school. The 549-student school already offers partial immersion programs for students in first through sixth grade. The 108 students who participate in the partial immersion programs are taught math, science and health components entirely in Spanish. Language arts and social studies courses are taught in English.

Graves originally wanted to institute a full immersion program in the sixth grade, but after visiting other schools with immersion programs, she decided against that option.

"It’s difficult to give language arts to sixth graders, in Spanish," Graves said. "The instruction at that level is content-related. It’s not so concrete. The kids in kindergarten will be dealing with more concrete stuff."

When Singer began looking for a school to host the kindergarten dual language immersion program, Lake Anne was one of her first choices. Singer said the diverse student population, coupled with Graves’s enthusiasm for additional Spanish programs at the school, sealed the choice of Lake Anne as the host school.

"This program is not so brand new that it will shake things up," Singer said. "It’s a natural progression from what they already have."

THE PILOT PROGRAM was approved on Monday, June 10, and Graves immediately started telling parents that the program would be available. She has since heard from several parents who are excited about the program.

"My phone has been ringing off the hook," Graves said.

Mileno Saucedo’s fifth grade daughter has taken immersion classes at Lake Anne. Saucedo said she would have "loved" to have the dual language immersion program when her daughter was a kindergartner. She said the kindergarten immersion would have put her daughter a year ahead in her knowledge of Spanish so that, going into first grade immersion program, she would have already had a basic knowledge of Spanish.

"The immersion programs help interaction between students, and also between families at the school," Saucedo said. "This is going to help the community be united."

Margaret Koller currently teaches some of the first grade immersion courses at Lake Anne. She said the children learn concrete terms. For example, Koller may point to a glass of water, then say agua, to teach the Spanish word for water. She also teaches functional phrases.

"My kids come in with no Spanish and within two weeks, they’re saying, ‘Can I go to the bathroom,’ in Spanish," Koller said.

She said immersion students are forced to become better thinkers because they must do extra brain work, internally translating Spanish instruction into English. She also praised the fact that the pilot kindergarten classroom will run a full day, instead of the half day that is used for kindergartners throughout Fairfax County. In South America, where Koller ran a nursery school, she said it is normal for five year old children to attend a full day of school.

"In this county," Koller said, "kindergartners don’t go straight home after school. They go to daycare, or some kind of program for a few hours, then home. So this program will be keeping them in a learning environment."