[subhead]Kids learn more than just words at Withers[/subhead]Inside two classrooms at Withers Elementary School, simple words have not only educated children, but transformed a neighborhood.
Those words are in both English and Spanish, part of the dual-language program at the Dallas ISD campus in Preston Hollow that has become a model for other public schools to follow.
The two-way immersion program, which begins in kindergarten, is split equally between native English-speaking students and native Spanish-speaking students, with the goal of making them all fluent in both languages by the time they reach fifth grade. Starting in second grade, they are taught half of the curriculum in each language.
“It’s been proven that their brains develop a lot faster than students who are learning in only one language,” said Withers teacher Irma De La Guardia. “Not only will you acquire another language, but you’ll be bicultural.”
That’s what attracted Becky Heller, a parent who remembers choosing Withers over various private and magnet-school options when her oldest son was entering kindergarten. All three of her children have been part of the dual-language program.
“We were just really jazzed about this idea that our kids would be bilingual and biliterate,” said Heller, a former Withers PTA president. “You can’t even pay for that kind of education. When our kids participate in the workforce, they will be above the fray in terms of language acquisition.”
The program began in 2007 with about 12 students, and now includes 44 children, with a waiting list each year for inclusion. Its popularity has led to the implementation of similar programs at other DISD schools, including Walker Middle School, for which Withers is a feeder campus.
“There are parents out there who want that experience for their kids,” said DISD trustee Mike Morath. “You just don’t see that in a private-school environment because there aren’t enough native Spanish speakers to pull that off.”
De La Guardia said the program has led to improved scores among its participants in state testing, has diversified the student population to match the makeup of the surrounding neighborhood, and has generated more social interaction among students from different backgrounds.
“It’s been proven to reduce the achievement gap between groups,” De La Guardia said. “We’ve definitely seen the benefits.”
As word-of-mouth spread, those benefits have extended outside the walls of the school, as well. Volunteerism and PTA participation at Withers has skyrocketed in the past few years, leading to fundraisers such as a fall carnival with a 5K run, and an annual auction that has helped fund various projects.
Yet Heller said the best attribute of the program might be its ability to forge friendships through character development and life lessons with regard to cultural diversity, both among students and parents.
“The teachers and administrators were always amazing, but because of the reputation of DISD, the neighborhood chose to go to private,” Heller said. “But this program started catching the attention of parents, and now we’re bringing back the neighborhood. It’s transformed the school and benefited every kid. We have created something really amazing.”