Southern alums Megan Wilkes, ’13, and Gretel Schmidt, ’14, received their education expecting to teach young students.

What they didn’t expect was their involvement in an innovative dual-language immersion program of the type currently underway at Fairview Elementary School in Carthage.

Jana Sawyer, ’93, English Language Learners coordinator for the Carthage School District, says the Carthage Dual Language Academy began in the 2015-16 school year. At the time, the effort was implemented in kindergarten and first grade, with two classrooms per grade level. This year, as the first graders moved into second grade, grade two was added to the effort and new enrollees joined the kindergarten classes.

“We will continue to add a grade level in the program each year as that first cohort of students moves up, continuing through high school,” Sawyer says.

Wilkes, the English language first-grade teacher at Fairview, says the effort involves more than just teaching students to speak another language: “There is a genuine community aspect to it,” she says. “We are blending two communities. We are learning about differences and acceptance. Life lessons consist of a lot more than academics alone.”

Sawyer says each grade level has two classrooms with approximately 20 students each. Half of the students speak primarily English at home. The other half speak primarily Spanish. One of the classrooms is an English only classroom and the other a Spanish-only classroom. Students spend half of their day in each class.

Schmidt, who teaches the Spanish language class for first grade, grew up speaking Spanish. She says that just as young children from Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua or other Spanish-speaking countries learn English quickly, native English speakers have proved surprisingly adept with Spanish.

“My non-native speakers have really good accents,” she says. “They already can roll their r’s and use the right inflections and voices.”

The teachers agree that the full language immersion for half of each school day is key to the students’ success.

The program makes up only a portion of the curriculum at Fairview. Parents are informed about the purposes and goals of the Dual Language Academy and are then invited to enroll their children. If they are not interested, their children will attend classes in which only English is spoken.

“Space is pretty limited,” Sawyer says. “Right now, we have more families interested than we can accept.”

While the Carthage School District has approximately 1,100 students who are classified as English Language Learners, the dual immersion program does not directly relate to that need, says Sawyer. The goal is to give everyone the opportunity to add a language, rather than lose one.

She says that although it is too early to draw conclusions about long term academic success, teachers have seen students form a unified community with their peers because of the need to rely on each other for support in speaking a new language.

“They are constantly being challenged,” she says. “Meeting those challenges successfully develops pride, and enhances academic risk-taking, creative thinking and problem-solving skills.”

Other Southern alums involved in Carthage’s dual language program include teachers Emeli Jimenez and Rachel Gonzalez, ’16; Fairview principal Ronna Patterson, ’81; assistant principal Lori Harter, ’89; and Carthage assistant superintendent of schools, Kandy Frazier, ’92.