CHAPEL HILL — When you walk into Frank Porter Graham Magnet School, it’s apparent this is not a traditional elementary school.
Everything is not only written in English but Spanish as well. The announcement sign at the front of the school reads “fotos escolares/school pictures.”
A Latino man greets a teacher at the front door in Spanish as he drops his daughter off. He bends down on one knee, kisses his daughter goodbye and tells her “Tenga un buen dia, mi hija,” meaning “have a good day, my daughter.”
Frank Porter Graham, the first magnet school in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, is in its first year as a full-immersion dual-language program.
Kindergartners through second-graders learn most of their day in Spanish, while third through fifth graders learn half a day in Spanish. Most of the teachers are native Spanish speakers or bilingual.
On one recent day, half the students in one kindergarten classes learned shapes, while the other half learned their letters, all in Spanish. The teacher’s motions, videos and pictures help students pick up the language, said Principal Emily Bivins. It is easier for children to learn a foreign language than it is for adults because the brain is still developing at a younger age, she said.
In Larisa Cortés’ fifth-grade math class, students learn multiplication in Spanish. Another class next door learns the difference between non-fiction and fiction in English.
“Second-language acquisition is totally about being able to immerse yourself into the language,” said administrative intern Karen Glassis-Ferrer during a tour of the school. “Students are learning both content and language at the same time.”
During a fire drill, students line up in a single file line and hustle out the door as Bivins, tells students “Vamos, vamos. Excelente, niños.”
Bivins was the principal at Carrboro Elementary for eight years before coming to FPG.
FPG was a traditional school until this year. Rising third-, fourth- and fifth-graders who had not been in the dual-language program had to switch schools, while rising kindergarten and first-grade students were given the choice to stay. Students transferring from other schools were put in a lottery.
The decision drew backlash from parents who liked FPG as it was. Some parents didn’t think their children needed to learn in Spanish in this way and didn’t want to move. About 25 percent of the students stayed, however, and Bivins said the transition has smoothed out and has been very exciting.
FPG is one of fewer than 10 dual-language programs in North Carolina. According to a 2010 study, black students in North Carolina two-way dual learning programs score higher in reading and math in all grades compared to black students not in dual-learning programs.
“I could not be happier,” Bivins said. “I feel like this school just has an energy to it, and a real sense of welcome. People feel comfortable when they walk through the door and parents don’t have to wonder if someone is going to greet me.”
On Tuesday parents, students and faculty gathered for a meeting.
Stephen Reiss has a fourth-grader and kindergartner at FPG. He brought his children from Greensboro to attend the new program. His older child was already in a Spanish immersion program and he wanted to get his kindergartner on the same track, he said.
“It’s great, very cultural,” Reiss said about the school. “We love that the teachers are from Spanish countries and that (my kids) have such exposure to diverse backgrounds.
Javier Cid, who has a son in kindergarten at FPG, echoed Reiss’ sentiments in Spanish.
“We are very excited that our son can go to a bilingual school,” he said in his native language, “where they will develop his ability in English and Spanish and learn the culture of Hispanic countries, while at the same time interacting and socializing with a huge population in Chapel Hill.”
“Every single person that is employed here is deeply committed to educating a diverse group of students, and they’re committed to bilingual education,” Bivins said. “Everybody who is here, including the parents, wants to be here.”
Alexander: 919-932-2008 Twitter: @jonmalexander1.