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Durham Teachers Head Back To Class To Bridge Spanish Language Gap

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DURHAM, N.C. — About 45 percent of students at Durham's Lakewood Elementary School consider Spanish their primary language. By the second or third grade, most of them have learned English, but haven't mastered it.

The Hispanic population in the Durham Public Schools is growing. Ten years ago, only 535 Spanish-speaking students were enrolled. This school year, 5,003 are enrolled.

That's why the elementary school is taking steps to help narrow the communication gap between students and faculty, while at the same time helping students learn the language.

For example, almost every object in Amanda Fiskars' third-grade classroom is labeled in both Spanish and English. In fact, almost every object in the school is that way.

"With the labels around the classroom -- if it has a picture on it and has it in English and Spanish -- they'll learn the English pretty quickly," Fiskars said.

Teachers like Fiskars are also taking part in a Duke University-funded learning program called The Spanish Leap, which equips teachers how to better communicate with the growing Hispanic populations at their schools. The free program is part of the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership, which was formed in 1996.

Fiskars is one of about 30 Durham teachers that meet for classes once a week at Duke after school. They have access to the university's online instructional resources and its language-learning lab. The program culminates in June with a weeklong trip to Guatemala, where the teachers will also study the culture.

Elizabeth Shearer, Fiskars' principal, took part in a similar Spanish program earlier this year and now, encourages her teachers to expand their Spanish vocabulary.

"When children see their language and their culture respected and celebrated, they're going to feel worthy," Shearer said, adding that they seem more eager to learn with even a few Spanish words.

Teachers do not teach classes in Spanish, but they do use the language to facilitate learning. It also helps when communicating with students' family members who do not speak English.

"I don't think we're saying everyone needs to speak Spanish or anything like that," Shearer said. "But to say, 'Leave Spanish at the door,' -- it doesn't work like that."