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Herricks district's mission is to 'prepare our students to become global citizens'

Juel Park, 7, does schoolwork in Spanish in

Juel Park, 7, does schoolwork in Spanish in her second-grade math class at Denton Avenue School in New Hyde Park on Tuesday. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

Second-grade students in Veronica Carbajal's classroom at Denton Avenue School in New Hyde Park appeared to be like any other group, only they were learning addition and subtraction problems in a foreign language: Spanish. When one student on a recent Tuesday morning needed a pencil, she asked the teacher for one in Spanish, too.

The children are enrolled in Herricks Public Schools' Spanish immersion program, one of the most unique dual-language K-12 offerings in the state. The program, which is open to students in all attendance zones, serves mostly children who don't speak Spanish at home. For half the school day, students and their teachers do not speak English.

What to know

The Herricks school district's Spanish immersion program, one of the most unique dual-language K-12 offerings in the state, is open to all students but serves mostly students who don't speak Spanish at home. 

For half the school day, students and their teachers do not speak English.

The district, which long has placed an emphasis on foreign-language instruction, launched the voluntary program in September 2010. More than 520 students are enrolled districtwide, and the inaugural class of around 22 will graduate in June.

"They really have to think about how they are learning," Carbajal said, referring to the elementary class of 22 made up of students from different ethnic backgrounds. "They can pick up the language a lot easier, especially when they are immersed in it."

The district, which long has placed an emphasis on foreign-language instruction, launched the voluntary program in September 2010, and the inaugural class will graduate in June with around 22 students. More than 520 students are enrolled districtwide, with a mission to "prepare our students to become global citizens," Superintendent Fino Celano said.

"We want our kids to be able to compete in the global economy, and therefore we think that language recognition is very important," Celano said.

Of the more than 450 dual-language immersion and/or bilingual programs in the state, Herricks is the only one under this model, said Francesco L. Fratto, director of World Languages, Language Immersion & English as a New Language for the district.

A survey of parents before the program's launch showed "Spanish would be a great asset for their children for the future," said Fratto, who also serves as president of the New York State Association of World Language Administrators.

Candace Black, state supervisor for World Languages, New York State Education Department said a state panel exploring expansion of programs across New York State is looking at Herricks as a model for other districts. Fratto is a member of that panel.

"What is unique about the Herricks program is that it is the only New York State K-12 dual-language immersion program that offers world languages at every single level of instruction," Fratto said. "They start in kindergarten, and every successive year builds upon the last, producing students with advanced-level proficiency … in the target language, by graduation."

The program, offered only at the district's Denton Avenue building, is limited to 48 students per year, and parents are made aware they are making a long-term commitment when they sign their kids up starting in kindergarten. Some do leave the program over the years.

The program doesn’t cost the district any additional funding. There are 12 specialized elementary-level teachers, with one English and one Spanish per K-5 grade level. Staffing in the upper grades is covered by existing staff.

"The majority of the students don’t come from Spanish-speaking homes," Fratto said. The program differs from one in Huntington.

The Huntington district started its program "to address the needs of English Language Learners who primarily come from Spanish-speaking homes, but nonnative Spanish speakers are included in [this] program," Fratto said. "The majority of our students speak Chinese."

The Herricks district, which enrolls about 4,000 students, is nearly 70% Asian and about 5% Hispanic or Latino, according to the state Education Department.

Half-day in Spanish, other half in English

Herricks' program operates under what it calls a 50-50 model. At the elementary level, students spend half the day learning in Spanish and the other half in English. Core subjects are divided: Students in grades K-5 learn math and science, and some social studies in Spanish, while they learn English and most social studies in English.

Carbajal's classroom has walls plastered with phrases in Spanish that she calls "sentence starters." She breaks the lessons down into concepts so the students can take steps one at a time in another language as they learn math skills.

"They pick up visual cues," she said. "And since they are not using their first language, they feel the need to use the second language to communicate their needs."

When the students go to middle school, they take two classes in Spanish. The social studies curriculum for grades 6, 7 and 8 is taught in Spanish, and they enroll in a specialized course based on the themes of Advanced Placement Spanish.

At the high school, they enroll in one course for each of their four years, taking the Advanced Placement Spanish exam in the 10th grade. They also can take another foreign language, in addition to Spanish.

Students will be considered bilingual upon completion of the program.

Senior Duhan Lee, 17, is among the students who will graduate from the program in June.

"I definitely learned about the language and the culture," he said. Lee added that he visited other countries "for mission programs — Costa Rica and Nicaragua — and I remember they were really impressed" with his language skills.

He said he plans to become an educator and that being bilingual would help his career.

Fratto said the students score on par with their peers on national and state assessments. One student, Carolyn Lau, achieved a rare level 5 perfect score on the AP Spanish Language and Culture exam this past spring. She was one of only 77 students of more than 146,600 test-takers from around the world to earn every point possible on the college-level examination, district officials said.

The immersion program is rigorous, said Jamie Chan, 17, who also is a senior.

"The teachers did a really good job of breaking down different subjects and allowing us to learn," she said.

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