By JONATHAN BISSONNETTE
CENTRAL FALLS – As they arrived on Tuesday morning for the first day of classes, elementary-aged students at the new Raíces Dual Language Academy on Hunt Street were greeted with not only a hello, but also with an hola.
That’s because the new elementary school, situated inside the former Margaret I. Robertson School building, is the Central Falls School District’s first entirely dual-language elementary school, educating 240 students in pre-school through sixth grade in both English and Spanish.
Principal Kim Leimer explained that this is not the district’s first foray into dual-language immersion – there was a dual-language strand at Veterans Memorial Elementary School for seven years – however, Raíces is the result of a clearly-established need in the community for more classroom time in both English and Spanish.
“As the community became more interested in dual-language, it built momentum for the whole school,” Leimer said. “This year, we’ll be educating students in pre-school to sixth grade. The idea is in subsequent years to expand all the way to 12th grade.”
The Central Falls Board of Trustees last March endorsed the creation of the Dual Language Academy, with officials at the time saying the academy’s creation would build on the success of the Central Falls School District’s dual language program while capitalizing on the assets of its students and the city of Central Falls.
The objective of Raíces Academy is three-fold, explained Leimer.
The first goal is to have students who are both bilingual and biliterate. What Leimer has found is that students who are not in a dual-language program tend to lose their first language, or that the development of their literacy is impaired over time. At Raíces, they plan to curb that loss by having higher literacy and more vocabulary in a student’s first language, which will then make it so that skills are more easily transferred.
The second goal is to increase levels of academic achievement. She cited Central Falls students’ “very poor performance” in the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System testing last year and she hopes that through sufficient development, they can attain higher levels of academic achievement.
The third goal is “socio-cultural competence.” Oftentimes, Leimer says, students who are new to the United States may struggle to navigate their new country and its cultural norms. But with programs such as what is offered at Raíces, there is a “more flexible approach.”
Leimer knows of what she speaks. She’s a former dual language teacher at Pawtucket’s International Charter School who also worked at The Learning Community on Lincoln Avenue for nearly seven years prior to taking the helm at Raíces.
“I’m really excited because I really believe that you can lift the levels of student achievement,” Leimer said.
Students at Raíces will be educated in every subject half the time in English and half in Spanish. Leimer said how the students are taught will vary based on grade level, noting that in kindergarten, students are educated half the day in Spanish and half in English, whereas children in higher grade levels may be taught for entire weeks at a time in Spanish before the lesson plan transitions to English.
School officials have called the launch of a dual-language school part of the district’s ambitious and bold redesign process with the goals of reversing historical patterns of inequities, challenging the status quo, disrupting instructional practices resulting in stagnant achievement, and rewriting the narrative about learning and teaching in Central Falls.
As a former ELL teacher, Leimer said she’s become entirely too familiar with the refrain from families of Spanish-speaking students who say that upon entering the school system, their child doesn’t want to speak a native language, thus creating a “sense of loss.”
“A school like this will maintain a home language and add to it,” Leimer said. “We as community members will learn and grow by learning more about other cultures.”
Jonathan Bissonnette on Twitter @J_Bissonnette