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Aiken County Public Schools say hello to new school year, new schools, new language programs

By Larry Wood

Aug 19, 2019 Updated 4 hours ago

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BELVEDERE — Yanfei Gao greeted 27 kindergarten students with a friendly “Ni hao” – Mandarin Chinese for hello – on the first day of school Monday morning at Belvedere Elementary School.

The 5-year-olds are the first students in one of Aiken County Public Schools' new language immersion programs. Kindergarteners at Millbrook Elementary will learn German, and the young students at Clearwater Elementary will study Spanish.

The programs are a K-12 initiative, Belvedere Elementary Principal Dr. Sal Minolfo said.

“We hope they will graduate in 12 years from North Augusta High with a high degree of fluency,” he said. “This opportunity is not just about language. They'll also get some other wonderful outcomes like diversity and understanding other cultures.”

Gao will teach math and science, and the students will be immersed totally in Chinese. No English will be spoken during those two class periods, Minolfo said.

“Her focus and the focus throughout elementary school will be content language and vocabulary, not necessarily on conversational Chinese,” he said.

In math, for example, the children will learn numbers and shapes and the math vocabulary their peers will learn in English.

Fran Gay will teach the general education part of the class.

Research has shown, Minolfo said, that learning the language and content vocabulary causes students to use both hemispheres of their brains.

“So they think deeper, more strategically and more critically,” he said.

Although Chinese is one of the more difficult languages to learn, the benefits are many, Minolfo said.

“When we visited other schools, you could see the benefit of the students just in being much more well-rounded, but you also see a higher number of kids, even in poverty, who succeed at high, high levels,” he said. “The research is amazing. It actually has shown to close the reading and achievement gap for a lot of students who are poverty level over a six-year period. I'm excited to see how it's going to support our school and make our school better by just adding a cultural diversity piece that we haven't had.”

Aiken County Public Schools is one of only a few districts in the state, including Beaufort and Lexington 1, that offer language immersion programs, Minolfo said.

He added that Superintendent Dr. Sean Alford made meeting the expectations of the profile of a South Carolina graduate, including offering world languages, a district priority.

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