Photo by Heather Middleton
By Curt Yeomans
It was in late October, of last year, when Riverdale parent, Shawanda Thomas, realized her 5-year old son, Charles, was exceeding her expectations as a kindergartner at the Unidos Dual Language Charter School, in Forest Park.
Students at the Clayton County Public Schools-run charter school learn in both English and Spanish. Thomas said she began to notice him saying more than the names of objects in Spanish. "I had realized it was more than the names of shapes, or colors, or numbers that he was saying in English and Spanish," she said. "He was actually saying complete sentences in both languages."
Unidos will wrap up its fourth year of existence on May 28. In the fall, it will be a pre-kindergarten-through fifth-grade school for the first time, according to school founder and dual language coordinator, Dell Perry Giles. "Actually, what will happen is, our current fourth-graders will be promoted, and become our first class of fifth-graders," Giles said.
The bilingual school opened in August 2006 with only kindergartners and first-graders, and has added one grade level each year as those initial pupils grew older, said school principal Nancy Said. In the first year, there were about 120 students enrolled. Eventually, it reached an enrollment of 420 students. Next year, enrollment is projected to top out at 500 pupils, said Giles, which will be the maximum Unidos will have going forward.
The school operates by simultaneously immersing young students in both languages. One day, a class of students will learn a subject, such as math, or writing composition, in English, according to Giles. The next day, she said, those students will learn the same topic, only this time, it will be in Spanish.
Students at the school have consistently done well in terms of making Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), according to the Georgia Department of Education's web site.
One of the school's original students, third-grader, Mikayla Browning, 9, said she still has some difficulty with Spanish words, after four years in the school, but she has learned to communicate in both languages.
"Sometimes, it's hard to remember some of the words, but most of the time, it's not that hard to speak Spanish," Browning said. "I like going to different places, and getting to talk to people in Spanish. It surprises them when they see I can speak the language."
While Giles said Unidos has "exceeded" her expectations, she was unsure if it would take off in Clayton County Public Schools when it opened. That is because there was no model for how a dual language school worked in Georgia at the time. "I learned it was being done everywhere else in the country, just not here in Georgia," she said.
Since it opened, the school has played host to numerous visiting officials from other school systems, who want to see how the dual language format works, according to Principal Said. Officials from Hall County schools went on to establish their own dual language school during the 2008-2009 school year, she added.
Last spring, Unidos played host to Georgia State University students filming a short documentary. Extra attention does not seem to phase pupils at Unidos anymore, according to Principal Said. "The students don't miss a beat when someone walks in their classroom now," the principal said. "They just keep working on their class assignments, as if nothing is going on."
Not everything is chugging along smoothly for the school, however. Clayton County Public Schools, like every other school systems in the area, is facing a budget crunch because of dwindling state and local revenues. As part of its expense-cutting efforts, school officials are planning to cut home-to-school bus transportation for school choice institutions, including Unidos. Parents of students at such schools would have to drive their children to, and later pick them up from, a shuttle bus site in Jonesboro, under a current proposal.
Unidos parents have argued that the proposal will hurt choice schools. District officials have since said they will consider other options. No decision has been announced on what will be done, however.
"I am very satisfied with the school, but the only thing I am dissatisfied about is the school system's plan to do away with the bus transportation for Unidos," said Riverdale parent, Yemi Brown. Her daughter, Kayla, is a kindergartner at Unidos. "I don't think that's something they need to be considering."
Shawanda Thomas, however, said nothing is going to keep her son, Charles, from attending Unidos next year. "I'll be bringing him to school myself," Thomas said. "I like this school that much."