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Unidos may add middle school grades

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Ever heard the Toys R Us slogan, "I don't wanna grow up ...?"

Well, officials, and parents at the Forest Park-based Unidos Dual Language Charter School have said they want the exact opposite for their school, and its students. The school is considering an expansion that would add middle school grades.

Students at the 456-student facility receive a bilingual education, in English, and Spanish. The charter for the school, which is currently a pre-kindergarten-through fifth-grade institution, is up for renewal this year.

There is a petition for a new, 5-year charter, that has been filed with the school system, and should soon come up for a vote by the Clayton County Board of Education.

The charter petition calls for the school to indeed "grow up" -- up to the eighth-grade, according to Unidos Principal Nancy Said.

"Research shows students have the best success [with bilingual education], if it continues through eighth-grade, and then they receive some form of extra support in high school," she said.

The Clayton county Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the charter petition during a called meeting, on Wednesday, at 5 p.m. The meeting is scheduled to take place at the Clayton County Public Schools Central Administration Complex, at 1058 Fifth Ave., in Jonesboro.

The agenda for the meeting -- a vote on Unidos' charter petition, and a vote on accepting a student tribunal decision, unrelated to Unidos-- are the only things scheduled to be dealt with at the meeting.

At a school board business meeting, held earlier this week, Clayton County Public Schools Superintendent Edmond Heatley expressed his support for expansion of the charter school. "They have gone through a very rigorous review process," the superintendent said. "And, its gives me great pleasure to say I recommend you approve the change they are requesting."

The upcoming vote on the charter should give the school a little bit of breathing room, if the school board approves a new charter for the school. Unidos School Council Vice Chairperson, Lorraine Lynch-Bernard, said the school has less than a month to meet a state deadline for submitting a charter petition -- approved by the Clayton County school board -- to the Georgia Department of Education.

"The state Board of Education has set a deadline of Nov. 1 for us to get our petition to the state," she said.

The state Board of Education would have the final say on whether Unidos gets a new charter.

The school's principal said expanding to the eighth-grade would not lead to a big increase in the number of students it can accommodate. Under its initial charter, Unidos was designed to eventually accommodate up to 500 students. She said expanding into the middle grades would, at the most, increase the school's enrollment by 300 students. She said that the enrollment may barely be more than what Unidos was designed to hold. "It would probably be 600 to 700, maybe 800," she said.

She added that discussions are still ongoing about where Unidos' middle school students would attend classes, since the school's facility -- the soon-to-be former Hendrix Drive Elementary School -- is designed to just hold an elementary school. The last Hendrix Drive students, all fifth-graders, are expected to finish up this year, leaving Unidos to occupy the building by itself.

Because students do 50 percent of their learning in English, and the other 50 percent in Spanish, and learning each year builds on the previous year, the school's principal said it accepts new students only in pre-kindergarten, and kindergarten.

In addition to expanding to middle school grades, she said the only other change in the new charter petition, from the original charter, is the addition of two more kindergarten classes. In the past, the school has added grades only as its oldest students have grown older, meaning it only added one new grade-level every year, until it finally added a fifth-grade this year.

Also, in the past, parents of students at the school have expressed a high level of loyalty to the school, and the bilingual education their children receive. Lynch-Bernard, said parents are keen to have an opportunity to continue that type of education beyond the fifth-grade.

She is the mother of a pre-kindergartner, and the fifth-grader, at the school. "We want them to continue learning this way," she said. "I like the fact that my son [the fifth-grader] is learning to speak both languages. I want him to go to Unidos, all the way up to high school."