Chesterfield Primary School stands out with historic language immersion programs

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. (WWBT) – As Chesterfield elementary students learn to count and say the alphabet, dozens of students at OB Gates Elementary School are taking it to another level by learning to do it in another language.

Chesterfield County Public Schools said Gates Elementary School is the first elementary school in the nation to offer a bilingual American Sign Language immersion program and the first in Virginia to offer the same program in Mandarin Chinese.

As part of this program, students who choose to be part of this program spend half of their class learning their math, literacy and science courses in the second language.

“OB Gates Elementary is the largest elementary school in Chesterfield County to offer specific programs for students with disabilities,” said Giuliana Brink, Principal of OB Gates Elementary School. “I think if we could immerse them in the school culture with age-appropriate peers, we would provide them with opportunities to build community.”

Depending on the school district, parents may choose to place their child in the lottery for bilingual immersion when registering for kindergarten.

Of the 572 students attending the school, 37 students are in Chinese Immersion and 63 are in American Sign Language Immersion; two are deaf or hard of hearing.

The American Sign Language Immersion program began three years ago and is available for students in kindergarten through second grade. Inside the classroom, instructors review shapes, songs, and math problems to reinforce their skills.

Students participate in the American Sign Language immersion program at OB Gates Elementary School.(Source; NBC12 | NBC12)

“When I walk in and see these kids embedded in the SOL program in their dual language, my heart literally jumps out of my chest,” Brink said.

Brink said the Mandarin Chinese immersion program began two years ago during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This class actually opened up their dual-language immersion virtually and they were taught pretty much the whole year,” Brink said.

The Chinese Immersion Program is offered to Kindergarten and Grade 1 students with the goal of teaching them to speak and write in Mandarin.

For Principal Brink, the lessons these children learn in the classroom go beyond the textbook.

“One thing that we know from research materials with dual language is that it increases bi-literacy, bilingualism, and most importantly, that socio-cultural effect,” she said. “Our children learn that there are different cultures in the world and people speak different languages, or maybe don’t speak different languages, sign in non-verbal language, but we are all equally important in this world.”

Principal Brink is looking to expand these programs to other grade levels. There is also a plan to set up a dual language immersion program for Spanish in the future.

The school will host a bilingual immersion showcase on April 28 from 6-7:30 p.m.

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