Building Better Learners by Teaching Across Cultures
Schools like Gunston Middle and Wakefield High provide intensive Spanish programs for Arlington County students.
One of Arlington Public Schools' stated values is to have its students be “proficient in at least two languages upon graduation and have access to world language proficiency programs regardless of school of attendance.” Schools like Gunston Middle and Wakefield High are doing just that.
Gunston Middle School students receive more than 11 hours of instruction in Spanish weekly. Half of their day consists of learning science and social studies in Spanish, and the other half learning math and language arts in English. Like Key Elementary, Gunston follows a two-way immersion approach to education, integrating native English speakers and native Spanish speakers in classes that teach different subjects in both languages.
Through two-way immersion, Arlington County educators hope students develop high levels of literacy in Spanish and English, have high academic achievement in both languages and develop cross-cultural understanding.
Each year, between 35 and 40 Gunston students enter Wakefield High School’s immersion program – which features a range of classes, including AP Spanish and Spanish literature courses. Students are also able to write their final senior project in Spanish.
“It’s a great experience for the students,” said Wakefield Principal Christian Willmore. “These students leave here extremely proficient in Spanish and, for some, their pronunciation is near native.”
Wakefield also promotes cultural competency. Students in the immeresion program have the chance to study Spanish in Costa Rica for a week. This experience, which is offered to all grades, is designed to strengthen the student’s Spanish language education and also expose them to Hispanic culture.
“This is an opportunity for students to study abroad and have a wider exposure to the Hispanic culture,” Willmore said. “The students are placed in different levels of Spanish classes, and some are even able to take classes at a college level.”
Willmore added, with a proud smile, that 10 of his students were recently recognized for receiving the official accreditation of fluency in Spanish as recognized by the Ministry of Education in Spain.
Kathleen Remedios and Brenda Pommerenke are two mothers of children who have attended Arlington’s immersion program from elementary to high school.
Remedios’ son, Jesse, is an 11th-grader at Wakefield High School. He is the youngest of her four children who have been in Arlington’s immersion program. Kathleen Remedios has had a positive experience, and she credits the program for Jesse’s academic success and open-mindedness.
“Doing Arlington's immersion program helped our child,” she said. “He became a strong learner because he was forced to stay highly focused and attentive. Learning a second language also gave him a chance to experience groups of people and issues in our world that he likely would not have known.”
Despite her overall satisfaction, Remedios said some areas of the program can be improved.
“There continues to be a need to develop a way for the students to practice conversing in the language and building confidence in everyday vocabulary,” she said. “Trips to Spanish-speaking countries were developed to address this issue, but they can be costly and only serve a small group of the immersion student population.”
Remedios suggests Wakefield add more student exposure to Latin dance, music and arts. Some schools, like Gunston Middle, are already incorporating that.
Pommerenke has three children who attended Arlington’s immersion program. One daughter, Isabel George, is in the 10th grade at Wakefield High School. She went on the Costa Rica trip last year and is planning to go again this year. Pommerenke was pleased with the opportunity and the broader program in Arlington but also feels it could be further developed at the high school level.
“It’s a phenomenal opportunity for my children,” Pommerenke said. “My husband and I are strong supporters of education and we wanted our children to feel challenged… It’s a great program, but it’s not perfect. I think there still needs to be more subjects like social studies offered in Spanish.”
Despite that, Pommerenke believes Wakefield is truly the home for an immersion program.
“One of Wakefield’s strengths is the diversity of the student body,” Pommerenke said. “You have people of all nationalities that make up this rich environment. It’s the right place to be immersed.”