Alachua County to open first dual language immersion school


An Alachua County elementary school will welcome its first dual language immersion model next school year for rising kindergarteners.

Terwilliger Elementary School, located at 3999 SW 122nd St., will become the first school in the district to offer both English and Spanish instruction in the classroom. Crystal Marull, University of Florida’s coordinator of online Spanish courses, was disappointed to find limited availability for language education in the county.

“There’s such a lack of language offerings for young kids in Alachua to learn languages, to be exposed to languages and there’s plenty of people interested in it,” Marull said. “It’s something that’s a long time coming and shouldn’t have taken this long.”

Marull’s older children attended an English immersion school in Argentina when they were younger. She worries about her youngest son, 5, who has struggled speaking Spanish more than his siblings. She fears that he won’t be able to connect with his grandparents whenever they visit Argentina.

The immersion model will encourage bilingual, biliterate and bicultural students starting in kindergarten to fifth grade. A new class of kindergarteners will be selected by a lottery every year after the 2022-2023 school year and are expected to commit until the fifth grade.

Dual language immersion can increase global competence, bilingualism and equity from a young age, said Jesely Alvarez, the principal of Terwilliger at an open house Feb. 2. Students will develop communication skills in both languages, problem-solving skills and cultural awareness through the program,

Luis Alvarez-Castro,  the chair of the UF department of Spanish and Portuguese studies, understands the benefit of early exposure to foreign languages to young children’s cognitive skills and multicultural awareness.

“…Starting at 5 is already a little too late; the sooner the better,” Alvarez-Castro said. “Your brain as a child is really a sponge. It’s much easier for these children to become proficient in the language and to become actual bilingual individuals with no accent and with a much better grasp of grammar.”

A research study conducted at MIT found that people who learn a new language from ages 10 to 18 will not achieve the same proficiency as native speakers. Studies have also found that bilingual and multilingual workers are in high demand, with 66% of recruiters agreeing that language skills will be increasingly important in the decades to come.

Alvarez-Castro also values the impact the program will have on the community. He said there are many English-speaking students interested in the opportunity and heritage Spanish speakers who will benefit from it.

Studies have uncovered that students who are native Spanish speakers and are enrolled in a dual-language program often learn the English language faster and achieve higher academic scores.

However, Alvarez-Castro wishes the school, which is near the Oakmont and Haile Plantation neighborhoods, was closer to the downtown area.

“We all know that the traffic jams can be really, really bad in that area,” he said. “I’m afraid that it’s going to be a detractor and that …many children who could be benefiting from this program will not have the opportunity just because of this.”

Emily Hind, a UF associate professor of Spanish, has been pitching the idea of a bilingual school since before the pandemic at GNV4ALL meetings, the Gainesville Sun’s initiative to identify inequities and racial injustices in the county. When applications opened, she applied for her son to attend the magnet school; however, she said she’s not thrilled with the school’s location and wished it was closer to East Gainesville.

“I think, as a county, we need to do some serious thinking about active transportation,” Hind said. “Lowering the speed limit seems to me the most obvious and inexpensive thing that we could do.”

Tatiana Bastian, 31, is a Newberry resident interested in enrolling her 2-year-old daughter in a bilingual school when she is older. Originally from Miami, Bastian grew up hearing a mix of Spanish and English and realizes the importance of connecting with other cultures.

“I love to travel,” Bastian said. “I love language. I love culture. I think that is a really awesome way to connect and to also stretch and strengthen your brain. So that’s something that I wanted not just for myself, but definitely for my child.”

Applications to join the magnet program for the 2022-2023 school year close at 4 p.m. on Feb. 18.

About Isabella Douglas

Isabella is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing

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