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Chesterfield elementary school stands out with historic language immersion programs

Published: Apr. 21, 2022 at 5:28 PM EDT|Updated: Apr. 21, 2022 at 6:54 PM EDT
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CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. (WWBT) - As elementary school students in Chesterfield learn how to count and say the alphabet, dozens of students at O.B. Gates Elementary School are taking this to another level by learning how to do this in another language.

Chesterfield County Public Schools said Gates Elementary School is the first elementary school in the nation to offer a dual language immersion program in American Sign Language and the first in Virginia to offer this same program in Mandarin Chinese.

As part of this curriculum, students who choose to be part of this program spend half of their class learning their math, literacy and science lessons in the second language.

“O.B. Gates Elementary is the largest elementary school in Chesterfield County to house specific programs for students with disabilities,” said Giuliana Brink, the principal of O.B. Gates Elementary School. “My thinking is if we could immerse them into the school culture with age-appropriate peers, then we would provide them opportunities of building community.”

According to the school district, parents can place their child in the lottery for dual language immersion during kindergarten registration.

Out of the 572 students who attend the school, 37 students are in Chinese immersion, and 63 are in the American Sign Language immersion; two are deaf or hard of hearing.

The American Sign Language Immersion program started three years ago and is available for students in kindergarten through second grade. Instructors go over shapes, songs, and math problems to reinforce their skills inside the classroom.

Students are taking part in the American Sign Language immersion program at O.B. Gates...
Students are taking part in the American Sign Language immersion program at O.B. Gates Elementary School.(Source;NBC12 | NBC12)

“When I walk in, and I see those children integrated with the SOL curriculum in their dual language, my heart literally jumps out of my chest,” said Brink.

Brink said the Mandarin Chinese immersion program started two years ago during the COVID-19 pandemic.

That class actually opened their dual language immersion virtually, and they were taught virtually all year,” Brink said.

The Chinese immersion program is offered to students in kindergarten and first grade to teach them how to speak and write Mandarin.

For Principal Brink, the lessons these children are learning in the classroom go beyond the textbook.

“One thing that we know in the research supports with dual language is that it increases biliteracy, bilingualism, and most importantly that sociocultural effect,” she said. “Our children are learning there are different cultures around the world and people that speak different languages, or maybe don’t speak different languages, sign in a nonverbal language, but we are all equally important in this world.”

Principal Brink is looking to expand these programs for other grade levels down the line. There’s also a plan to bring a dual language immersion program for Spanish in the future.

The school will host a dual language immersion showcase on April 28 from 6-7:30 p.m.

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