CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — One elementary school in Central Virginia is leading the nation in language instruction.

Gates Elementary supplements budgeted funds with grants for its dual language immersion programs.

O.B. Gates in Chesterfield County is the first elementary school in the nation to offer American Sign Language (ASL) as a dual immersion program, according to school officials. It is also the first elementary school in the Commonwealth of Virginia to offer Mandarin Chinese in that same format.

“Every time I walk in the classrooms, I cannot believe how these students have grasped the language and taken off with it,” O.B. Gates Principal Giuliana Brink said. “I’m just so proud of how the teachers and the students have embraced the opportunity, and they love it.”

The current 2021-22 academic year is the third for ASL dual immersion and the second for dual immersion Mandarin. However, kindergarten students in the Mandarin Chinese dual immersion program are the first to engage in such instruction in-person.

“We spent all year prepping,” Brink said. “When the pandemic came out, we decided, even though we were opening virtual, we were going full-speed ahead, and our first group — that’s our 1st grade class now — started virtual kindergarten, learning Chinese immersion, in addition to the curriculum for kindergarten.”

Gates Elementary has previously offered language instruction, as do other schools in the Chesterfield County Public Schools (CCPS) division. But these dual immersion programs take language learning to new heights.

“The difference between the flex and the immersive is the world language program is more global, it’s more learning about the cultures and integrating language,” Brink said. “But in the immersion program, that is the anticipation, that you will be more fluent and be able to write and speak in two languages, with Chinese being the target language because it is integrated into the SOL [Standards of Learning] curriculum.”

When 8News visited Gates Elementary on Wednesday, kindergarteners were doing Tai chi with their teacher, and then moving on to mathematics in Mandarin Chinese. In the 1st grade immersion classroom, students were singing songs in the language, with almost no English being spoken.

Dual Language Immersion (DLI) teacher Xue Yang’s classroom is decorated with student art. (Photo: Olivia Jaquith)

“Everything in those grade levels that we are expected to teach in English, we are also teaching in Chinese,” Brink said.

Similarly, in the ASL dual immersion classroom, kindergarteners spent time on their letters, speaking in English and then signing with their hands.

“We’re learning nursery rhymes in kindergarten. In 1st grade, we’re developing more concepts,” Brink said. “Right now, in 2nd grade American Sign Language, they’re exploring the deaf culture and the history of the deaf culture. So they’re reading more about deaf culture and then continuing to develop that vocabulary.”

Of the 572 students at Gates, 37 participate in Chinese immersion, according to a release, and 63 are enrolled in ASL immersion, with only two being deaf or hard-of-hearing.

During kindergarten registration for the school, parents or guardians can choose to place their child in the lottery for dual language immersion, or they can choose a regular class setting. At the end of the academic year, families are offered an opportunity to opt out, though CCPS officials said that no family has done so yet.

“We’re going to continue to expand to 5th grade, both of the programs, and then keep that sustainability,” Brink said. “There’s so much research out there on bilingualism, biliteracy, improving social culture, developing that empathy for other cultures, and so we’re hoping that our students are continuing to lead that as they leave us here at Gates in embracing those appreciations for different cultures.”

O.B. Gates Elementary School will host a Dual Language Immersion Showcase Night on Thursday, April 28 at 6 p.m. During the event, community members will hear from the educators who teach these programs about the impacts they see in the classroom, as well as see examples of student work.