DeAnna Stith, a kindergarten teacher at Cardinal Valley Elementary School, doesn't speak Spanish. A student who moved to Lexington from Mexico six weeks ago and was placed in Stith's class doesn't speak English. Neither do several of the girl's classmates.
The child gets extra help from teachers who speak Spanish and English, but "it's a struggle not only for her to express herself to me ... it's hard to assess her," Stith said.
Next school year, a first-of-its kind program for Fayette County Public Schools will be in place at Cardinal Valley in hopes that it will give all students, most of whom are Hispanic, a better academic foundation in their native language.
That is expected to help the school raise its low test scores because students will be able to show their true skills in reading, writing and math, first-year principal Matthew Spottswood said.
"For the first time we are going to be educating our kids in their native language and creating biliterate learners at Cardinal Valley," Spottswood said.
Added Stith: "We're just going to take the knowledge they already have and build on it from day one."
At Cardinal Valley, 75 percent of students are Hispanic, 95 percent receive free and reduced-price lunches and about 400 of the approximately 600 students have language deficiencies in English, the principal said.
Under the new program, called dual language, Hispanic kindergarten students who don't speak English will be placed in classes together and receive 80 percent of their instruction in Spanish, the language they know. Twenty percent of their instruction will be in English, a language they are learning. Their teacher will be bilingual.
The percentage of English language instruction will increase to 30 percent when they reach first grade in 2015-16. By third grade, the Spanish-speaking students will receive 50 percent of their instruction in English.
Kindergarten students for whom English is their first language will continue, for now, to receive their core academic classes in English.
When the program starts in the fall, it will involve kindergarten students only. Cardinal Valley will start with two classes of Hispanic students who speak primarily Spanish and three general education classes for English-speaking students.
Spottswood said it was his hope that because of the program, the students will become "the most successful, the most prepared for the 21st century that you will find in any school in Fayette County."
Cardinal Valley's program contrasts with the Spanish immersion program at Maxwell Elementary, where English-speaking students from all over the district apply and are chosen by lottery to attend a magnet program in which half their instruction time is in Spanish, said Lu Young, district's chief academic officer. The program continues at Bryan Station middle and high schools.
It is also different from Spanish immersion "strands" at Northern and Liberty elementaries, which draw students from the schools' attendance areas. In those two schools, most students are native English speakers; they may opt for the immersion program or regular classes when they enter kindergarten.
Cardinal Valley's program also will be limited to children assigned to the school.
Cardinal Valley has had a growing Hispanic population for 20 years, and steps taken to close the achievement gap have not worked, Spottswood said.
An assistant principal in North Carolina before coming to Cardinal Valley, Spottswood speaks Spanish and has had experience teaching Hispanic students, he said. When he started at Cardinal Valley in the fall, teachers approached him immediately and asked if they could try an immersion program. This year, he said, has been one of research and teacher training.
The school district and taxpayers are not spending additional money on the program, said Spottswood, who has pursued and been awarded more than $45,000 in grants. That covered the cost of consultants and research, he said.
Young, the district's chief academic officer, said the program is used in schools in Western states with large Hispanic populations. It is called GLAD, or guided language acquisition design.
"I think it's a creative approach and I think it portends really well in terms of narrowing the achievement gaps of English language learners," Young said.
The program was adopted by the school's site-based council and did not require board approval.
Cardinal Valley PTA president Samantha Rodarte said she was hoping for major change.
"There's been so many years when the kids have not been given what they needed," she said. "I'm hoping that this can change that for them. Studies support what we are doing. I just hope that that proves true here."
Three of her children attend Cardinal Valley, and she has a preschooler who is likely to enter the immersion program. The children speak English and Spanish at home; their father is Hispanic.
Cardinal Valley teacher Alicia Coves, who is from Spain and is bilingual, gives extra help to Spanish-speaking students this year. Next year, Spottswood expects Coves will be teaching one of the new kindergarten classes for Hispanic students. Coves said those students need a good academic foundation in Spanish first "and then they can build."
Said Spottswood: "Every kid deserves an opportunity. We are excited to give them that opportunity."