Dual Language School of the Month: UNIDOS, Somerville Public Schools, MA

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This month, we are pleased to nominate UNIDOS, Somerville Public Schools, in Massachusetts as our Dual Language School of the Month. UNIDOS is in East Somerville Community School, and as the only dual language program for the Somerville Public Schools System, they receive students from across the city. Their decision to pursue a dual language program originated in response to Somerville’s city population, which includes a large Spanish speaking community, comprised of first and second-generation families predominantly from Central and South America. Furthermore, a core group of English speaking families voiced interest in raising bilingual and bicultural children.

UNIDOS is well established. Between 1995-1999, a dedicated group of community members tirelessly advocated for a dual language program. In 1999, the team successfully galvanized all stakeholders. With the support of the superintendent, school committee, school administrators, teachers, parents and students, the program was approved. The following school year (2000), the program originated with 40 kindergarten students (2 classes).

After the initial approval from the school committee, an internal planning team was developed to spearhead the preparation year. The team was tasked with selecting the location, assisting with hiring bilingual staff, developing a bilingual curriculum and raising awareness about the program. The superintendent was an advocate of dual language education and hired a new bilingual director to oversee the program.

During the planning year, the team studied dual language programs and collectively learned about best practices in bilingual education. They also sought out and identified an existing program to serve as a partner. This relationship was critical during the initial phase as it allowed the team to observe a successful program in action.

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Also during this planning year there was a significant effort to involve all stakeholders in shaping the program. This included upper administration and school committees as well as bilingual staff who were interested in the success of the program. Making sure everyone understood the vision and the mission of the program was essential to establishing a foundation.

The preparation work in their implementation phase was critical to the first year’s success. The shared ownership of the program amongst all the stakeholders was key.

Everyone – from school committee down to the students- had a clear understanding of the three program goals: bilingualism, biliteracy and biculturalism. Spending the year developing a working definition of each of these was important and allowed everyone to use the same language when advocating for the program. -Maureen Hughes, UNIDOS Specialist

Continue reading to learn more about the February Dual Language School of the Month…

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The planning year also provided the new kindergarten teachers with a well-developed curriculum and necessary bilingual supports. This included creating social, academic and linguistic goals as well as bilingual resources and language targets. In the subsequent years, providing a well-developed curriculum was more challenging since implementation of grade 1, grade 2 etc. structures and resources occurred at the same time of implementation. During the launch year, they had the luxury of rolling out a curriculum that was already developed.

The year of preparation also allowed us to ensure we had the right staff to support the program. We were committed to native-speaking Spanish classroom teachers and that required hiring additional staff. The planning year allowed us to cast a wide search and identify the most talented people to assist with the launch year.

Their planning year was effective because all the details of implementation were developed in advance for the kindergarten program. In retrospect, it would have been beneficial to plan in advance for the structure and curriculum for upper grades. Although I was not here at this point, my predecessor, Betsy Reardon, spoke about how there is a significant amount of work that goes into launching a new program and therefore, at times, instead of just thinking about the kindergarten year it would have been useful to think beyond and prepare for the entirety of the program. -Maureen Hughes, UNIDOS Specialist

There were also some unforeseen realities, including political changes and how the success of programs was measured. Since learning a second language requires time, there existed some initial understandings that had to be clearly articulated to all stakeholders about student performance. Research was key to building trust and faith in the program during those early years until student performance in the upper grades stood on its own.

For that initial group of parents and the original core staff, Unidos was their life work and they wanted it to be perfect. The launch year was very successful.

The biggest challenge our program is facing today is the power of English. It is the language of prestige in our society and infuses so often into our hallways and social spaces. Furthermore, the political landscape right now has raised new fears that often result in Spanish speakers distancing themselves from the language. Ensuring Spanish has equal – if not greater footing – in our program is essential for our students’ bilingual success.

Continue reading to learn more about the February Dual Language School of the Month…

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The UNIDOS team regularly reflects on how they can continue to improve their program. They currently run all program professional development sessions in Spanish but are limited in how much they can cover annually due to time constraints. Increasing the amount of professional development, allowing them to come together as a community to engage in research on best practices in bilingual education, is a leveraging point for them. They also hope to increase their Spanish intervention staff so they can improve their supports for struggling language learners.

We are committed to authentic texts at all grade levels. We also continue to hire and maintain a balanced staff of native Spanish speakers and native English speakers who are bilingual. Finally, we are proud of the global landscape evident in our teaching staff. We have teachers from across the world. This diversity is an asset to our program.

Their program continues to maintain a staff dedicated to bilingual education and focused on what is best for their students. As a group, they are hard working and promote a strong growth mindset. They regularly seek out coaching and professional opportunities to improve their knowledge and instruction. UNIDOS is a special program and they are very proud of their graduates.

Our advice is to begin by researching, reflecting on your community demographics and reaching out to people across your district to see if there is interest in such a program. Wrap around interest in a bilingual program is critical to getting it off the ground. Betsy Reardon, the retired UNIDOS specialist who was involved in the initial stages said, “Make sure you have a constituency that is large enough to support program growth. You need allies at the school level; school committee, administration, teachers, parents and students.” If you find a dedicated group that is willing to advocate, support and defend the program, you have the first important milestone.- Maureen Hughes, UNIDOS Specialist

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