Students at Ducketts Lane Elementary School have taken part in a Spanish language development program for kindergarten through second grade since the beginning of the school year.
Starting with basic vocabulary during 25-minute classes each day, students have advanced to forming sentences, allowing them to converse with classmates and sing in Spanish.
Their teachers call their work "constant progress."
"It's a huge showcase to the benefits of having Spanish instruction every day," said Katie Erickson, a Ducketts Lane Spanish teacher, on Thursday.
Officials with the Howard County Public School System hope to emulate the success at Ducketts Lane Elementary through a new elementary school model to be implemented in five schools, which features expanded pre-kindergarten, Spanish language programs in early grades and departmentalization, which allows teachers to focus on specific subjects.
The model was unveiled Thursday morning in front of about 50 educators and school and county officials at a news conference outside of Columbia's Running Brook Elementary School.
"Once it's fully in place, the school will be transformed into a vibrant learning community that looks, feels and sounds entirely different from what most of us think as school," Superintendent Renee Foose said.
The model will be installed at the beginning of the next school year in five elementary schools -- Running Brook, Bryant Woods, Phelps Luck, Stevens Forest and Talbott Springs. Ducketts Lane will also incorporate elements of the model in addition to its Spanish language development program.
These five schools were chosen because they are more affected than others, with regard to student achievement and students with free and reduced price meals (FARM), according to Foose.
Each school is a Title I school.
"We really want to make a difference in these schools that we know are more impacted than other schools around the county," Foose said.
In addition to expanded pre-kindergarten services and an early introduction to foreign languages, the model calls for "strengths development," intended to focus on individual students' strengths in classroom activities.
It also uses departmentalization, which enables teachers to focus on fewer subjects, thereby allowing more time to plan lessons.
Finally, the model will establish Telehealth services at each school that will connect children in school to doctors, allowing students to be treated in school so they miss less class time.
"This is an innovative model that represents an entirely different philosophy for what education should look like," Foose said.
Foose applauded County Executive Ken Ulman for making this initiative a reality by fully funding the school system's budget request of $530.4 million.
Ulman said he was thrilled with the project.
"This effort today, as part of this model education program, to begin to introduce full-day Pre-K into all five schools here that we're talking about is incredibly important in making progress in [closing] the achievement gap," he said.
The Howard County Council is expected to approve Ulman's proposed budget May 21.
Although excitement surrounded Thursday's announcement, some parents have expressed concern that the schedule will take time away from instruction in the arts and music classes.
But Foose said sectional classes, including the arts and music, have not been altered.
In order to carve out 30 minutes in the schedule for world language instruction, five minutes from every other class was trimmed, but sectional courses have not been touched, Foose said.
While sectional class time remains untouched, the general music and arts classes for most students will be reduced from 60 minutes to 45 minutes per week, according to Howard County Education Association President Paul Lemle.
"We know students benefit from arts instruction; so we share the concern of our parent community about this cut," he said in a statement.
HCEA does not have a formal position on this pilot program, but Lemle added the organization is also concerned with technology classes being eliminated as technology instruction will be "infused into content."
"It is unclear whether this change will benefit students, or whether technology and content area teachers will be able to plan their lessons collaboratively in the new schedule," Lemle said.
Foose acknowledged the program is "very much in its infancy," but she has been encouraged by the enthusiasm shown by students and staff at Ducketts Lane.
Foose clarified that this model is a pilot and she would have to see results before expanding the program to more elementary schools.
"We have some trailblazing schools that are willing to embrace the model and work out the details of it," she said. "Before I would consider expanding, I would like to see that we get it right here."
More information on the model can be found online at http://www.hcpss.org/academics/elementary-model.