Pre-schooler Samantha Flores Montoya builds a sundae in the play kitchen area earlier this school year at the Dual Language Academy in Omaha. David Ignacio Pacheco is in the background. COURTESY PHOTO

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Dual Language Academy outgrows current home, will move

Omaha’s Dual Language Academy (DLA), which teaches students in both Spanish and English, is doing more than just helping them become bilingual – it’s helping them gain an appreciation and understanding of other cultures, strengthening their intellectual development and setting them up for high academic achievement – all while fostering their Catholic faith.

The school has cemented its ability to deliver those benefits to more and more students in the future thanks to a plan to move into unused classrooms at St. Joan of Arc School in central Omaha by next fall.

Since it began in 2018 with 88 pre-school, pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students, the school has grown 33%, adding an additional grade level each year, and is outgrowing its current home at the former St. Stanislaus School in south Omaha.

“It just seems to be like God’s hand was driving this, because they’ve got a great facility” but not enough students to fill it, said Michael Goetz, executive director of the archdiocese’s Catholic School Consortium.

The Dual Language Academy is part of the consortium, an organization of six schools in central and east Omaha and Bellevue that share expertise and resources.

“We’ve got a facility that we’re overrunning and we have a lot of students, so it seemed kind of like a match made in heaven,” Goetz said.

If things go as planned, the Dual Language Academy will continue adding one grade each year as St. Joan of Arc drops a lower grade of its traditional curriculum, eventually resulting in one consolidated school, St. Joan of Arc with a dual language curriculum, said Kayleen Wallace, St. Joan of Arc principal.

“We felt it is really important to honor our commitment to our current school families, so that any current students would have the ability to continue in the traditional Joan of Arc curriculum” as they move through the grade levels, while the youngest students begin in the dual language curriculum.

“I think it was a very thoughtful (planning) process,” she said. “We really tried to listen to feedback from a lot of stakeholders, … and feel that this is a great opportunity for St. Joan of Arc.”

FIRST OF ITS KIND

The DLA is the first of its kind in Omaha to provide dual language immersion instruction for students as young as 3 years old – and the only to do so in a Catholic school, enabling the school to “put disciples of Christ that have a sensitivity for multiple cultures out into our community,” Goetz said.

“By starting at that age, we are creating a strong foundation for continued dual language learning,” said Angie Gonzales-Smith, DLA principal.

“By the time students reach middle school or high school, research indicates that dual language students will outperform their monolingual peers,” she said.

The DLA staff collaborates with and receives mentoring and professional development through the Boston College Two-Way Immersion Network for Catholic Schools (TWIN-CS) to ensure best practices in its dual language program, Gonzales-Smith said.

The Dual Language Academy’s 118 current students include 60% English-speaking and 40% Spanish-speaking students, Goetz explained. In the lower grades, most teaching is done in Spanish, then transitions to English as students progress through the grades.

Terry O’Donnell, a St. Joan of Arc parent who plans to enroll his 4-year-old son at DLA, said he values the cognitive benefits that learning a second language gives young children.

“When children grow up speaking multiple languages or playing musical instruments, the brain develops differently – the interconnectivity, the elasticity of it. The cognitive benefits are tremendous,” he said.

O’Donnell, whose wife is Hispanic, also appreciates the immersion in other cultures and traditions his son will experience. “It’s a door to a world that their ancestors are part of,” he said. “I couldn’t ask for more than that.”

“We have teachers from six different countries in our school” with their own cultural traditions, Goetz said. “Everybody’s got their own traditions that they’re bringing into the equation, so the kids are learning a lot about multiple cultures.”

Andrea Robles, whose husband, Ben, has a Mexican background, also values that cultural immersion for their two sons who currently attend DLA and a daughter who will begin next fall.

The couple, members of St. Columbkille Parish in Papillion, are happy their children can learn about how different countries celebrate Christmas, Epiphany and other holidays, she said.

MUTUAL BENEFIT

DLA’s move will be a mutual benefit for both schools, Gonzales-Smith said.

“DLA children and families will benefit greatly from our relocation to St. Joan of Arc,” she said. “Our students will have access to a gym, playground, theater and library, and the move will allow our school to stay together in one building as we grow.”

“We are looking forward to collaborating with St. Joan of Arc to share resources and offer all children and families increased cultural experiences,” she said.

Father Jeffrey Lorig, pastor of St. Joan of Arc and St. Thomas More parishes, also is enthusiastic about the opportunities the move provides.

He cited the opportunity for cultural enrichment for St. Joan of Arc’s already diverse population of nearly 100 pre-K through eighth-grade students, as well as shared activities such as music and physical education classes, student Masses, holiday activities and participation in sports teams.

And the move could result in growth for the parish, he said.

“It’s an opportunity for us, first of all, to welcome people who need what we have, but also for them to feel like they’re part of a larger family – a parish family,” Father Lorig said.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Enrollment for next school year at the Dual Language Academy begins Feb. 15 for new families. More information, both about the transition and about the Dual Language Academy, can be found at OmahaDLA.org/newlocation2021. The school will be located at St. Joan of Arc School, 7430 Hascall St. in Omaha.