Gomez-Heritage Elementary & Omaha South High School
THE LOW DOWN: The Hispanic population continues to grow across the country, and Omaha is no exception. Learning to speak Spanish is a valuable and marketable skill for young adults preparing for life after high school and studies show that students who are bilingual do better in school. Couple this with the notion that it is easier to learn a second language when you’re young and it becomes clear why Omaha Public Schools created its Dual Language program, giving students a leg up in school and in life.
THE CHALLENGE: How can a school district create a robust program that goes beyond traditional language education and teaches students to not only be bilingual, but to be bi-cultural and bi-literate, too?
THE CHAMPIONS: Katy Cattlett – Dual Language/Flap Coordinator for OPS, Jack Bangert – Dual Language program coordinator at Omaha South High School, Susan Mayberger - coordinator of ESL, Migrant and Refugee Education for Omaha Public Schools (OPS)
THE SOLUTION: In 1999 Susan Mayberger, OPS’s English As a Second Language (ESL) coordinator, met with teachers and administrators at Gomez-Heritage Elementary to assess the success of the school’s ESL program. Though they were making gains, they admittedly weren’t making the gains they’d hoped for. Ms. Mayberger then presented an idea for a dual-language program that would change the scope of language education at Gomez-Heritage in a way that would reach students and their parents. What began as a program for high school honors students who wanted to learn a second language evolved into a more inclusive and comprehensive program that starts in elementary school and continues on through high school.
THE RESULTS: At seven schools across the city, students in kindergarten through 12th grade learn to read, write and speak Spanish through content and course work delivered in both languages. At the elementary level participating students spend half their day learning in English, and the other half learning in Spanish. (the student is expected to learn all subjects – whether it’s math or social studies – in English and Spanish)
At the high school level students are required to take four years of Spanish or complete Advanced Placement (AP) Spanish and AP Spanish Literature. Additionally they’re required to earn credits in a variety of dual language courses. Courses offered include Geography, Mexican-American History, Algebra, Physics and Latin American Studies.
For students being raised in households where Spanish is the primary language spoken, the inability of educators to communicate with parents made it difficult to encourage their involvement. As part of the Dual Language Program, coordinators and teachers have connected with parents to explain how Omaha’s public school system works and why their involvement and advocacy can help their child succeed in school. The program coordinators at Omaha South even help students and parents understand and fill-out scholarship applications. Last year the Dual-Language program at South graduated 21 students who received a whopping $1.59 million in scholarship money thanks to the program’s workshops. Today the program counts on incredible levels of parent involvement and support, something that administrators cite as the primary reason the initiative is so successful.
One of the most exciting trends is the increased interest of many program graduates to come back and serve the community that served them and their families well.
Though we featured Gomez-Heritage and Omaha South in our film, there are five additional Omaha schools participating in the OPS Dual Language education program: Crestridge Magnet, Spring Lake Magnet, Castelar Elementary, Marrs Magnet Center and Beveridge Magnet. All seven schools have been recognized by Spain’s Ministry of Education as providing high quality Spanish-language education. Only 92 schools in the U.S. have achieved this recognition.
- Start them young: According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), there is evidence that early language learning improves cognitive abilities and is beneficial in the development of students’ reading abilities. Giving children as young as kindergarten age a head start on the path to bilingualism will make it easier for them to learn.
- Make it inclusive: Language education shouldn’t be just for honors students. With studies showing that bilingualism can help students learn better, all children should have the opportunity to learn language in a comprehensive and meaningful way.
- Secure parental involvement: The educators involved in the Dual Language Program all agree that parental involvement is the primary reason why the initiative has had such success. At Omaha South teachers, parents and student all sign a dual language contract. All three parties are responsible for the student’s success, and the students are held to high standards that they work hard to achieve. Parents are asked to donate 20 volunteer hours to the school. The hours can include attending meetings or supporting conferences, or even at-home projects for parents who work long hours and find it difficult to attend after-school events.
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