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Escuela Key: Teaching the Best of Both Worlds

Elementary school helped blaze trail for two-way immersion in Arlington County.

Standing in front of her second-grade math class at , Mia Arévalo-Fort asks a question. One of her students raises her hand eagerly and responds, “Uno, dos, tres!”

Arévalo-Fort smiles at the girl, who is sitting among a group of Hispanic, Caucasian, African-American and Asian children and replies back with, “Si!”

Her class, which consists of 19 students, will attend her math class and a science class in Spanish in the morning and take social sciences and language arts classes in English in the afternoon. This is not your typical school schedule -- it is, however, common for two-way immersion schools that are now becoming a national trend.

According to a report published by the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk, two-way immersion, or TWI, is “an instructional approach that integrates native English speakers and native speakers of another language (usually Spanish) and provides instruction to both groups of students in both languages.” This model has existed in the United States for almost 40 years, but has seen dramatic growth in the past 15 years.

Established in 1986, Francis Scott Key Elementary, also known as Key School or Escuela Key, was the first immersion school in Arlington. It started with just first grade taught in both languages and continued to add the two-way model for each subsequent grade.

In 1995, Key became completely immersed, with the entire school following the two-way model. The current principal, Marjorie Myers, came on board that same year and has played a major role in keeping the school entirely immersed.

Myers is a strong advocate of two-way immersion schools and believes this type of program produces positive results for all students -- native and non-native English speakers alike.

“Generally, parents send their children to TWI schools to be ready for our global world and economy,” Myers said. “Enough research has been done now that those who are informed realize that by starting young, children easily learn in two or more languages.”

Key's student population has a Hispanic majority. Such students account for about 52 percent of its 588 students, according to Arlington Public Schools.

In the book "Educating English Learners for a Transformed World," the authors conduct a study that compares the achievements of non-English speakers in different types of educational programs, including two-way immersion and English-only schools. The results showed that students in two-way immersion schools have some difficulty with standardized English reading tests early on but later out-performed non-English-speaking students in other programs and even native English-speaking students in English-only middle and high schools.

Though not required by Virginia law, Myers insists her teachers be bilingual. She prefers incoming students not to be, though she says those who are bilingual help bridge the language gap for their classmates.

Arlington County once had the highest number of two-way immersion schools, but other school districts across the country have caught on. Alongside Key, schools like Claremont Immersion Elementary, Gunston Middle and Wakefield High help in keeping Arlington an immersed county.

Michelle Gomez attended Key from kindergarten to fifth grade. She loved the school, the friends she made and her teachers. She enrolled her daughter in the school last year and is very happy with her decision.

“It’s been good,” Gomez said. “At first I was nervous, because my daughter didn’t know Spanish, but now she talks to me all the time in my language!”

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