A team of educators from New London, Conn., traveled more than 1,300 miles to Omaha this week with one purpose.
“Basically, we came out here to see, what can we steal?” said Maureen Ruby, New London Public Schools supervisor of professional learning.
She's joking — sort of.
Looking to expand their own dual-language offerings, six New London administrators visited the Omaha Public Schools this week to get an inside look at the district's language immersion program.
“This isn't the first time a district's come to us, but it is the farthest anyone's traveled,” said Katy Cattlett, OPS's supervisor of dual and world languages.
The course offering is an increasingly popular option in OPS, which is one of just 15 public school districts nationwide to offer dual-language programs in grades K-12.
It started in 2000 with 60 students in one elementary school. Today, 2,300 take classes in both English and Spanish at nine elementary, middle and high schools.
Dual-language programs teach classes in two languages — English and Spanish in OPS — to foster bilingualism and bi-literacy at a young age. Students typically enter the program in kindergarten and throughout elementary school, spend half the day learning core subjects in English, the other half in Spanish.
Most students are native Spanish speakers, but a growing number of kids who know only English are enrolling to reap the benefits of bilingualism, which studies have shown can boost cognitive function and future earning potential.
New London has already established a dual-language program in one of its elementary schools. But as the district embarks on an ambitious plan to become an “all-magnet school” district — a bid to draw in more suburban students and state aid — officials are trying to build a K-12 pathway for dual-language students.
Magnet Schools of America linked New London chief academic officer Katherine Ericson with Cattlett last year after she asked for a dual-language consultant. Using her own vacation days, Cattlett visited the Connecticut district.
“She came and we said, look at what we have, give us feedback on what we can do better and tell us, how do we grow?” Ericson said.
Ericson describes New London — population 28,000 — as a “tiny little city with big city urban issues.” Half of the land in the 6-square-mile Connecticut seaport city is tax exempt, more than 80 percent of the school district's 3,300 students qualify for free or reduced lunch and low test scores and budget woes brought the district under state oversight in 2012.
A turnaround plan involves turning each of the district's six schools into magnet schools with focuses like science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), the arts and language immersion.
New London officials immediately connected with Cattlett and found similarities between their district and OPS, despite the size difference. OPS has about 51,000 students.
Both districts use similar instruction models, both struggle to find teachers qualified for dual-language classes and both have similar demographics in terms of poverty and race/ethnicity. In visits this week to Spring Lake and Crestridge elementary schools, Beveridge and Marrs middle schools and Omaha South High, New London officials took notes on OPS recruiting methods — they've worked with the State Department and applied for grants to send teachers abroad to brush up on their Spanish — and the ways they've engaged with the local Latino community, including hiring bilingual family liaisons.
“We can sit and hope and pray that we can find some bilingual teachers, but why not grow our own?” Ericson said.
The OPS program isn't breaking new ground, but the New London team was impressed with English and Spanish signs and posters hanging in the hallway, awards placed on the lockers of honor roll students and classrooms managed with a set of consistent rules.
“Our students get to have a relationship with someone who speaks their language, year in and year out,” Cattlett said. “They have someone who understands them and their culture. They feel like they belong and their culture is validated. They tend to love, love, love their teachers.”
Cattlett also said the program benefits from highly engaged parents who feel comfortable with school staff. Those teachers and counselors work intensively with South High students — especially first-generation college goers — to navigate the world of college entrance exams and financial aid forms. Sixty-two students have graduated from the program and earned $4 million worth of merit scholarships.
“When our students enter the dual-language program at South High School, the expectation is every one of them will go to college or some sort of post-secondary education,” Cattlett said. “We don't care how poor your family is. We will help you work through that. But that will not be the barrier.”
“That's one thing we're going to steal,” Ruby said. “What they do to meet the goal of all students getting to post-secondary. They mentor students and they follow them like flies on fly paper. They don't let them fall through the cracks.”