After starting with a modest pilot group at Brookwood School a few years ago, Dalton Public Schools' Dual Language Immersion program now includes more than 350 students at four elementary schools, with plans to expand.
"The more we study this, the more benefits we see," said Claire Kyzer, lead teacher for Brookwood School's German Immersion Program. Students not only can speak, read and write a pair of languages, but they demonstrate higher levels of academic achievement and appreciation for other cultures.
They're proud of their own culture, but they understand others, said Maria Rodriguez, who is in her second year as a Spanish teacher in Westwood School's program. They also have more empathy for classmates who are trying to learn English as a second language, because they're trying to learn a second language of their own.
"We live in a diverse society," Kyzer told the Kiwanis Club of Dalton recently during a meeting at the Dalton Convention Center. "This is a natural way of developing appreciation of other cultures."
Brookwood began its German Immersion Program in 2016, and since that pioneer group has reached fourth grade, the program expanded to that grade this year. This year's kindergarten class is now the fifth cohort for the program, which will expand with that original group to fifth grade next year.
In addition to the approximately 185 students in Brookwood's program, Westwood's Spanish program has a little more than 100 students, while Blue Ridge School's Spanish program has about 40, and Park Creek School's Spanish program has 22.
Currently, Westwood's program is prekindergarten-first grade, while Blue Ridge's includes prekindergarten and kindergarten, and Park Creek's is only prekindergarten, but school system officials hope to expand those programs to more grades and schools.
"We're growing the programs as students grow (older)," said Caroline Woodason, a director of school support who oversees the Dual Language Immersion program. "We wanted to start small and do it with quality, not expand too fast."
With dual immersion, students are immersed in the target language at least half of their day, Rodriguez said. In Dalton Public Schools, math, literacy and science are taught in the target language, while language arts and social studies are in English.
"I like (the program) because half the day you learn English and half the day you learn a new language, German," Brookwood fourth-grader Brynlee Chlebisch noted in December. "It's work, but fun work, not hard work, and it gets more fun each year."
"You learn the language to learn (content), not learn it to get a grade," Kyzer said. "We are learning content through the medium of the language, and that's why it sticks."
They "learn the second language together with English, (so) it's just part of their brain," Woodason said. "It helps academically to learn two languages at the same time."
Dual Language students are more engaged and better problem-solvers, because "they have to figure things out day one," Kyzer said. "They really focus, (rather than) wander mentally."
That also helps students learn additional languages later on, if they wish, she said.
"You've learned the language-learning skill, how to put things together."
Dalton schools incorporate various events that are part of German and Spanish culture to "immerse (students) and give them experiences," Rodriguez said. Students then share those with parents, relatives and friends, so those cultural nuggets are spread "out into the community."
For example, Brookwood annually observes Martinstag (St. Martin's Day), which is traditionally celebrated on Nov. 11, the funeral day of St. Martin of Tours, the third bishop of Tours and patron saint of many communities across Europe best known for slicing his cloak in two to share with a beggar on a frigid night.
Students craft lanterns, sing songs and hold a school-wide parade, among other activities, Kyzer said. It's "a great way to share the German culture with all of the school."
The holiday "is a good lesson for kids," Charlotte Bramlett, a fourth-grader in the program, explained during the 2020 celebration. St. Martin "was important and a good example."
Being in the German Immersion Program is ''really special, (an opportunity) not a lot of kids get, and it's an important skill you may need in life," Lilly Cobb, a fourth-grader in the program, explained last year.
And as Martinstag annually demonstrates, "you get to celebrate German holidays" each year in addition to all the American holidays.
Brookwood's program is "one-way immersion," Kyzer said. "We don't have any native German speakers, so they are all learning German from me."
At the other schools, Spanish is "two-way immersion, (because) we have a mix of native Spanish speakers and native English speakers," Rodriguez said. "I teach Spanish in my room, and then (there's an) English teacher" for that element.
Blue Ridge and Park Creek have "self-contained" programs, Kyzer said. That means "one teacher teaches both languages."