Schools’ dual language program is in high demand and ripe for expansion, board members say

By Randi B. Hagi, senior contributor

Harrisonburg City Public Schools’ original class of “dual language” students — the ones who started as kindergarteners in 2010 — began high school this fall. And now the school board and staff are looking toward expanding the program that is attracting more applicants than available spots each year. 

Students typically enroll in the dual language program in kindergarten, eventually taking courses like social studies, earth science or theater in Spanish. 

The program is designed to include both students who speak Spanish and those who don’t. Jeremy Aldrich, the district’s director of teaching and learning, said in a school board meeting on Tuesday that each year, 200 spaces are available for kindergartners to sign up. This year, 225 students applied. 

In all grades combined, a total of 1,235 students are enrolled in the program. Kindergarten applicants are selected by a random lottery. Older students who wish to join their peers’ cohort are granted entrance by their school’s principal.

“Dual language is one of our most powerful tools for educational equity,” Aldrich said. Enrollment in the program correlates with higher test scores in English and Math, especially for students learning English as a second language. The program also benefits native English speakers, most of whom achieve intermediate proficiency in Spanish by seventh grade.

“I think this is really powerful,” school board member Nick Swayne said. “The capability to communicate with more people is a good thing.” 

About 64 percent of the dual language students are Latino, 29 percent white, 4 percent black, 2 percent Middle Eastern or North African, and 1 percent identified as another ethnicity. The program started in 2010 at Smithland Elementary School. Now, Harrisonburg High School, Thomas Harrison Middle School, and four other elementary schools have a dual language program.

That prompted board members to think about potential expansion. 

Swayne suggested starting an Arabic or Chinese program. Board member Obie Hill said he could envision the entire Harrisonburg High School curriculum as dual language.

“You know you can’t rest on your laurels,” the board’s vice-chair, Andy Kohen, joked to Aldrich.

Superintendent Michael Richards said he and staff would look at different ways to expand the program and bring recommendations back to the board.

Music education recognition

Richards announced at the meeting that the National Association of Music Merchants Foundation selected the school district as one of the “Best Communities for Music Education.”

Richards shared a letter he had received from U.S. Sen. Mark Warner on Tuesday.

“I commend the administrators, faculty, and staff of Harrisonburg City Public Schools for your commitment to funding, staffing, and holding high standards for music instruction in your schools,” Warner wrote.

Richards recognized J.R. Snow, the district’s fine arts coordinator and music teacher, for his contributions to the city’s “amazing” fine arts program.

Also at the meeting:

  • Richards announced that a community summit for the division’s strategic planning process would be this Thursday, Sept. 5, at 6 p.m. in the high school auditorium.
  • Richards also announced that the next school board meeting, a work session on Sept. 17, will include a presentation from the new high school’s design committee, to get informal school board feedback on some upcoming design decisions.
  • The board unanimously approved a $196,600 purchase of laptops for high school freshmen, and a $132,728.28 purchase of internet hardware upgrades. The district will get 80 percent of the hardware purchase cost back in federal funds. The remaining $26,545 for internet hardware, plus the cost of the laptops, has already been allocated in the budget. District policy states that the board must specifically approve any purchase over $60,000.
  • Richards announced that authors Kwame Alexander, Tami Charles and Emma Otheguy will visit Harrisonburg schools this year as part of “The World is My Classroom” initiative, which introduces students to “relevant literature for authentic problem-solving.” 

“We want children in Harrisonburg city to see themselves in literature,” Richards said.

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