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Bilingual preschool relocates to CMS site

Charlotte Bilingual Preschool student Axel Albarran Mateo, 4, holds up his hand to answer a question while parent volunteer Ivonne Uquillas reads from the book “Dinosaur Roar.”  Sitting along the wall with teacher assistant Christina Klein are, from left, 3-year-olds Emmanuel Robles Venegas, Kenneth Sarante Viscaino, Alejandro Zeni Zuniga, Maya Hernandez Martinez and Emily Martinez.
Charlotte Bilingual Preschool student Axel Albarran Mateo, 4, holds up his hand to answer a question while parent volunteer Ivonne Uquillas reads from the book “Dinosaur Roar.” Sitting along the wall with teacher assistant Christina Klein are, from left, 3-year-olds Emmanuel Robles Venegas, Kenneth Sarante Viscaino, Alejandro Zeni Zuniga, Maya Hernandez Martinez and Emily Martinez. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

The Charlotte Bilingual Preschool and Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools officials have reached an agreement to share a soon-to-be vacated part of Hickory Grove Elementary School in east Charlotte, with the preschool moving into an annex building on site.

Joanne Stratton Tate, head of the preschool, says the move to a larger site – double the charity’s current Central Avenue home – will allow the school to double its student body in August, to 144 children. There’s room to grow, but more money needs to be raised to hire staff, she said.

The district’s Latino population is growing so rapidly – now at 20 percent – that the preschool has 300 immigrant families on an ever-growing waiting list. “And this is without any kind of advertising,” Tate said, noting one family put their child on the wait list in 2010 as soon as he was born. “And his name is still there, only now he’s turning too old to attend.”

Currently, 1 in 4 CMS kindergarteners is Latino, Tate said.

However, opposition to bilingual education across the state has limited the ability of school districts to adopt using bilingual classes on a wide scale.

CMS offers Spanish-English bilingual education – classes taught in both English and Spanish – only at two Spanish immersion magnet schools, both of which have waiting lists. Neither includes bilingual classes at the preschool level, however.

The district’s broader approach for immigrant students is English as a Second Language, a program that helps immigrant children gain English proficiency as they are taught core subjects in English.

Advocates of adopting a dual-language approach at the preschool level claim it would help the district retain struggling Hispanic students (323 of the 947 students who dropped out last year in CMS were Hispanic).

Critics of bilingual education claim it allows immigrants to avoid learning English, which opponents say hampers an immigrant’s ability to function in an English-speaking society. The bilingual preschool’s mission is to help children ages 3 to 5 from Spanish-speaking homes learn the skills necessary to enter an English-only school system.

There are probably 1,000 low-income Latino children in the district who could use the added help of a bilingual preschool education, but there are seats for only about 350, including her school and a handful of bilingual church schools in the county, Tate said.

“We’re talking about children from low-income families whose parents may not even be literate in Spanish. They may not be able to read,” said Tate, noting the low-income parents are all required to pay something toward their child’s tuition.

The Charlotte Bilingual Preschool, which has a staff of 11, has been seeking a new home for two years but was limited by the lack of availability of space for licensed preschools. It’s currently located at Third Presbyterian Church on Central Avenue near Eastway Drive.

A campaign is underway to raise as much as $600,000, which will cover the cost of the additional students in the fall. Also included is $15,000 for some renovation at the Hickory Grove site, Tate said.

Part of Hickory Grove Elementary, 6709 Pence Road, will be vacated this summer and the preschool will move into that portion of the building.

CMS will charge the preschool to use the seven classrooms at Hickory Grove, but the cost is comparable to what the school is paying now, preschool officials said. CMS and preschool officials would not disclose the fee.

Space is available in the Hickory Grove annex because a Hickory Grove relief school is slated to open in August, said CMS officials.

The agreement is for one year and is considered different than a lease, CMS officials said. Examples of similar use agreements include CMS allowing space to be used for religious services or community meetings.

Community leader Claire Tate, who is on the preschool board, is credited by many with leading the effort to start the preschool 15 years ago. She helped win a $100,000 Smart Start grant to pay startup costs. United Way suggested the school target the community’s growing Latino population.

Claire Tate says the school’s waiting list has had many supporters losing sleep over how to meet the growing need in Mecklenburg County.

“We are clear that these children need to learn to speak English, the language of the United States,” she said. “But instead of looking at their native Spanish as a detriment, we see it as an asset to be nurtured as they learn English. We end up with the best and brightest.”

Price: 704-358-5245

How to help

To help the Charlotte Bilingual Preschool, make an online donation at www.bilingualpreschool.org or mail a check to Charlotte Bilingual Preschool, 4019 Central Ave., Charlotte NC 28205. Details: 704-535-8080 or www.bilingualpreschool.org.

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