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SALT LAKE CITY — Currently, more than one in 10 of America's school children are learning English as a second language. But by 2030, experts estimate that number will be 40 percent, which presents a unique challenge for schools.
The Granite School District has found a way to bridge the achievement gap, and experts around the nation are watching closely.
Mariela Hernandez, 16, plays a crucial role in her family: she is their link to the English language. But when she started school, there was no one at home to help her.
"It was terrible," Hernandez said. "When I first came to school, I didn't know English."
Closing the gap between English learners and native speakers is a challenge in the Granite School District where ESL students speak more than 100 different languages.
"We have a lot of these children, the first day, not understanding a bit of English," said Lolo Dominguez.
But the school district has found a way to close the gap through a remarkable preschool program. Mariela's sister Devony is one of the many success stories.
"She came in last year very shy, very quiet, no English," Dominguez said. "Now, she is outgoing, very social and her progress and her learning has really been something else."
The key is the district's new curriculum. Most preschools are play based, but the district's new program focuses more on pre-academic skills.
She came in last year very shy, very quiet, no English. Now, she is outgoing, very social and her progress and her learning has really been something else.
"We started working on pre-math skills," said Brenda Van Gorder of the Granite School District. "We did many things with alphabet knowledge."
Additionally, they bombard students with English vocabulary. "We encourage them to keep their first language," Van Gorder added.
Math test scores show how well the program has worked. By third grade, children from the most at-risk schools, who had preschool, are testing almost as well as children who go to schools with some of the highest income levels.
"It's not just putting preschool on target. It's going on into first grade, second grade, third grade," Van Gorder said. "We've been collecting data on a group of children who are now just finishing fourth grade at or near the top of their class because of preschool."
The U.S. Department of Education is studying the program's success and state senator Aaron Osmond plans to reintroduce a bill next year that would create funding for a pilot project to take the program statewide.
The State Office of Education is leading an initiative to improve reading skills for at-risk students. You can read more about that in the Deseret News.