Graduate’s collaboration with Education scholars leads to innovative dual-language programs

by Dusty Rhodes  /   Dec 9, 2016

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In 2012 Joe Wiemelt, M.Ed. ’09 EPOL, Ed.D. ’14 EPOL, used the academic research he attained at the College of Education to persuade educators at Leal Elementary School in Urbana to make the transition to a dual-language approach in classrooms. Four years later, elementary-aged children at Leal are valued for their ability to help English-speaking peers learn a second language.

This happens through mixed classrooms in which the teachers speak only Spanish for as much as 90 percent of the day, a percentage that goes down as the children get older.

Wiemelt is the director of equity & student learning/bilingual & multicultural for Urbana School District 116. He is a native English speaker who began learning Spanish as a second language in college and is now fluent in it. His children participate in Urbana’s dual-language program, and he is proud of the way this method of learning has transformed his family.

“The way they’re growing up is drastically different from the way I grew up,” Wiemelt said. “For example, on the way to school, they’re asking to speak in Spanish, they’re asking to listen to Spanish music, to salsa music or reggaeton or whatever. That’s kind of our dad/son time. We speak in Spanish a lot at home—sometimes behind my wife’s back, who doesn’t speak Spanish, and sometimes with her, to teach her. So we have fun with it.

“It’s really challenged our views and my broader family’s views—my parents and my brothers and sisters—of what it means to be white Americans. And my kids are having conversations with their relatives about language and culture that’s kind of challenging their aunts and uncles in ways that I love. So it’s just shaping our family dynamics differently.”  

There is now a waiting list at both Urbana schools that offer dual-language programs (Leal and Dr. Preston L. Williams Jr. Elementary). Students from Spanish-speaking homes are automatically admitted to the program if their families want them to be placed in it, so the wait-list is entirely made up of English-speaking families eager to have their children learn Spanish. The lists include families who live in the two schools’ attendance zones as well as families hoping to transfer in.

Discover more about this innovative program via an NPR article, and read how Wiemelt credits several Education at Illinois scholars and graduate students for making the dual-language program in Urbana a reality.