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Colorado Springs charter school touts foreign language immersion

January 3, 2014 Updated: January 3, 2014 at 8:31 am
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Students hold lanterns for St. Martin's eve, or Martinsfeuer, during a performance for German International Day at Global Village Academy Charter School in Colorado Springs, Colorado on Friday, November 22, 2013. (Kent Nishimura, The Gazette)

There's foreign language class, and then there's foreign language immersion.

There's a big difference.

At most schools, students learn to speak, read and write in a second language for one class period a few times a week.

At Global Village Academy, up to 95 percent of a student's day is spent learning about reading, writing, math, history, science and other subjects in a second language.

Students comprehend the material quickly, said the assistant principal of the Colorado Springs campus, Alicia Welch, because teachers use demonstrative gestures, facial expressions, intonation, photos and other nontraditional and engaging actions.

"It is amazing to see how well the kids do with the program," she said.

If growth of the public charter school network is any measure, it's a popular idea.

Global Village Academy's first location opened six years ago in Aurora with 200 students. It now has 1,200. A campus in Northglenn opened two years ago with 230 students and this school year has 750.

Two schools debuted this academic year in Colorado Springs and Fort Collins. Both are chartered under the state's Charter School Institute. A fifth school is planned to open in Douglas County in 2015.

Welch said all curriculum meets the Common Core standards and other academic requirements for public schools. And like other charter schools, Global Village is free to students.

The Colorado Springs location has 150 students and will open an immersion preschool in February.

It's prepared for growth; The school bought the former Irving Middle School, at 1702 N. Murray Blvd. The property includes a 107,000-square-foot building with a football field and track.

Each campus starts with grades K-4 and adds one grade each year, until eighth grade. Sites have three immersion language choices. Mandarin Chinese and Spanish are taught at all the schools. The third language is French, Russian or German, depending on the community needs.

The Colorado Springs school offers German, Welch said, because of a large population of German-speaking residents.

The teachers are native speakers of the various languages, she said. Kindergartners learn in their immersion language for 95 percent of the school day, with 30 minutes devoted to English instruction. In first and second grades, 90 minutes of the school day is taught in English to prepare for state assessments that start in third grade. English and second language studies are divided in half for grades 3-4 and above.

The school day is one hour longer than traditional public schools, giving 30 additional days of instruction per year.

Welch said that allows for students to "master content and development of that second language."

"The gift of a second language is priceless," said Tracy Aung, who has a kindergartner and a second-grader at the school. "They're picking it up so fast. I hear them speaking Chinese to one another and answer me in Chinese, and I'll ask them to translate in English. It's so amazing."

Students who start in kindergarten are usually fluent by the end of second grade, Welch said. If they attend Global Village Academy through eighth grade, students are adept enough to take Advanced Placement tests in the second language.

The school also celebrates diversity and culture with the community. Students present an International Day once a month, with singing, dancing and other activities in their immersion languages.

They recently hosted a traditional German lantern walk in honor of St. Martin's Day. Welch said about 100 people took part, including several families that aren't connected to the school. Students and parents also participate in community events, such as the city's Chinese New Year celebration.

The goal, Welch said, is for students to be prepared to compete in the global workforce.

Aung likes the thought of giving her children a leg up from the start. "It's the way the world is moving," she said, "and this opportunity opens up the whole world to them."

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