Hawthorne Elementary’s dual language curriculum

On Thursday I visited Hawthorne Elementary at the invitation of Principal Jessica Rosenthal. Hawthorne is unique within JCPS in offering a dual language curriculum in which students learn all subjects in both English and Spanish, spending about half the day in each language in each classroom.

As a foreign language learner and former teacher of English to speakers of other languages, I was THRILLED by what I saw.

Most important, at Hawthorne I saw, for the first time ever within JCPS, students speaking FLUENTLY in a SECOND LANGUAGE that they had LEARNED WITHIN JCPS. Elementary school students from all over Louisville were happily and productively reading, writing, speaking and doing math in both English and Spanish.

I’ve been frustrated for years, as both parent and education activist, by the low expectations and low attainment that JCPS has brought to foreign language instruction. Nowhere else in the system have I ever encountered even a vague notion that non-ESL students might become fluent in a language other than English.

Yet I’ve seen this happen everywhere else I’ve ever been: My own students in China, the multilingual kids of my friends in Europe and Asia, and the many foreign business leaders, government officials, and workers I’ve dealt with over my career. So I was THRILLED to see Hawthorne delivering this global standard of excellence to some of Louisville’s children.

My morning at Hawthorne was overwhelmingly positive, and it’s tempting to stop here. However, continuous improvement requires honest recognition of areas that need work — so I’ll mention several observations that did not thrill me.

First, I was surprised to learn that JCPS personnel policies, as embodied in the contract with JCTA, place teachers in Hawthorne who don’t speak Spanish. Seniority rights allow teachers to transfer to Hawthorne even if they are unable to participate in the school’s unique program. This looks like a good example of the sort of old-fashioned rigidity that needs to be updated to help teachers and students succeed in today’s flexible, globalizing environment.

Student assignment was another surprise. Apparently some students are placed in Hawthorne who haven’t chosen Spanish immersion and have no Spanish, sometimes mid-year in the older grades. Dropping kids into classes where they don’t speak the language replicates the experience of kids who come to the U.S. as refugees from other countries. I expect that many of the Louisville kids who experience this will be as successful as many of our inspiring refugees, thanks to their teachers’ efforts and their own resiliency. But replicating the refugee experience does not look like good policy.

But to finish on a positive note: I loved my visit to Hawthorne, and believe I saw an innovative program, creative and flexible teachers, a happy and nurturing environment, and a school doing work of which all Louisvillians can be proud. And I know I heard the sound of genuine learning, in the natural and effortless switching of kids between two languages that will enrich the rest of their lives.

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