Kindergarten teacher Denisse Sepulbeda works with Kelly Munoz, 5, counting and identifying colors using Spanish at Roquemore Elementary in Arlington. Bob Booth Special to the Star-Telegram
Kindergarten teacher Denisse Sepulbeda works with Kelly Munoz, 5, counting and identifying colors using Spanish at Roquemore Elementary in Arlington. Bob Booth Special to the Star-Telegram

Arlington Citizen-Journal

Arlington’s dual-language/fine arts academies are a hit so far

Special to the Citizen-Journal

September 28, 2015 4:20 PM

ARLINGTON

Kindergarten is all about new and exciting challenges — learning to follow directions, navigating a big school and making friends. Students in the Arlington school district’s new dual-language/fine arts academies have even more to get used to, but parents, teachers and administrators say they are already rising to the task.

At Jones and Corey academies, which opened their programs to a total of 197 kindergartners in August, students spend half of their instructional days in a Spanish-language-immersion classroom learning science and math and the other half in an English-only classroom learning social studies and language arts. They also have 90 minutes daily of dance, theater, visual art, music or piano, much more than the 30 minutes a day most kindergarteners get in art or music.

In a few years, students will also have the opportunity to take Mandarin Chinese as an elective. By fifth grade, they’ll choose an arts specialty area, such as strings, vocal or dance.

“Not only is it a new program in Arlington, but they truly are making it a one-of-a-kind program in the nation,” said Gara Hill, whose son Travis is a student at Corey Academy of Fine Arts and Dual Language on Kelly Elliott Road, which serves the southern part of the district. Interested parents completed an application and attended meetings to help officials gauge their commitment to the program.

Hill acknowledges feeling a little nervous about being in the first group of parents to test the concept. But, she said, the potential benefits made it a risk worth taking.

Travis is “doing great,” she said. “That’s the beauty of them being so young. He doesn’t know what regular kindergarten looks like. To him this is what kindergarten looks like.”

Voters approved the academies in 2014 as part of the school district’s $663.1 million bond package. In October, each site will begin $7 million in construction to add fine arts instruction space and make other building improvements.

Students enter the program in kindergarten, with each academy adding a grade a year as the first class moves up. Children who would have gone to kindergarten at what is now Corey Academy were rezoned to other south Arlington schools. A similar process will happen at Roquemore Elementary, on Van Buren Drive in north Arlington. Roquemore houses Jones Academy as a school within a school for now. A new elementary school is expected to open in the area next year.

First- through sixth-graders who attend the academies aren’t taking part in the Spanish dual-language program. They do get a chance to access the Mandarin Chinese instruction and enhanced fine arts curriculum, including a classroom where each child gets to tickle the ivories on his or her own piano as a teacher instructs and listens in on earphones.

Many academic studies also have heralded the beneficial results — such as increased working memory and mental flexibility — of exposing children to bilingual or fine arts education at an early stage.

Arlington has long had a reputation for outstanding fine arts programs, and the academies build on that strength to create a “unique public school experience,” Superintendent Marcelo Cavazos said. It also helps the district align its elementary and junior high school offerings with challenging programs at the high school level, such as Advanced Placement classes and the International Baccalaureate degree, he said.

“We know that the cognitive development of children is accelerated and enhanced with a strong language program and a strong arts program. In our research we found schools that specialized in one or the other, but not both. … We decided to combine those two things for the students,” Cavazos said.

Cavazos, who is fluent in Spanish, said he has seen firsthand how bilingualism is an asset in communication, making connections with others and serving the community. Many academic studies also have heralded the beneficial results — such as increased working memory and mental flexibility — of exposing children to bilingual or fine arts education at an early stage.

Not only is it a new program in Arlington, but they truly are making it a one-of-a-kind program in the nation.

Gara Hill, whose son Travis is a student at

For example, Judith F. Kroll, co-director of the Center for Language Science at Pennsylvania State University, wrote in the American Psychological Association’s Psychological Science Agenda newsletter that research suggests “proficient bilinguals have acquired not only linguistic proficiency but also the cognitive skill that allows them juggle the two languages with ease.”

Denisse Sepulbeda, a Spanish-language kindergarten teacher at Jones, said being in an environment with a high priority on bilingualism appealed to her because “I know how important it is in the world.”

Students in Sepulbeda’s classroom are surrounded by all the typical kindergarten sights — shelves of children’s books, cubbies for their belongings, and bright wall posters displaying numbers, shapes and alphabet letters. Everything is in Spanish, though.

Students are allowed to talk to one another in English or Spanish, but Sepulbeda and her teaching assistant speak only Spanish with the children and any visitors who enter the classroom.

Hill said she expected her son to have some frustration, but his teacher’s skill at communicating through words and demonstrative actions have made Travis excited about learning.

Both Hill and Justin Chapa, another Corey Academy parent, say they’ve been amazed at what their children have picked up so far in Spanish, including counting to 20 and reciting the days of the week. Chapa said he looks forward to seeing his son Benjamin explore the arts offerings at the school and, hopefully, find something he’s passionate about.

“I just think that having exposure to so many different activities younger will help him figure out what he’s more interested in and focus on those things when there’s more opportunity to drill down and focus on them in high school,” Chapa said.

Hill said she expects interest in the academies to grow as more parents hear about them. This year, the district was able to accommodate all qualified applicants within the first few weeks of school.

Even though they’re just a month in, it seems as if even the students realize that they’re part of something special, said Jones Academy theater arts teacher Elizabeth Gonzalez.

“They know it’s a great thing they have and a wonderful gift they’ve been given,” she said.

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