ChattAcademy to be first dual immersion school for middle, high schoolers

FILE - In this Aug. 24, 2016 photo, bilingual teacher Abraham Robledo labels items in his classroom for his first graders at James S. Hogg Elementary School in Dallas. While Californians passed a ballot measure to bring back bilingual education in the upcoming school year, educators say a challenge to getting the programs started will be getting more bilingual teachers. Nearly two decades after banning most bilingual education, Californians voted in November to let schools restore it for English learners and English speakers whose parents want them to learn Spanish, Mandarin and other languages to complete globally for jobs. (David Woo/The Dallas Morning News via AP, File)

When ChattAcademy Community School opens its doors in 2023, its organizers say, it will be the first school in East Tennessee with a Spanish/English dual immersion curriculum for middle and high school students.

"What is unique about our model is that there aren't many models like ours that start in middle school, so we're excited to be on the cutting edge around that curriculum and model creation," founder Nolan McDaniel said in an email.

McDaniel also serves as a fellow for BES Inc., a Boston-based organization that provides resources and support to develop and maintain charter schools.

A dual immersion school offers native speakers of two different languages, often Spanish and English, a chance to study in the same classroom.

"In a two-way model, your student body is 50/50: 50% of them are native speakers in one language, 50% are native speakers of a different language Those two groups are simultaneously learning the opposite language to get to a place of bilingualism where they can take courses in both languages in an integrated way," McDaniel said.

The Hamilton County Board of Education unanimously approved the public charter school application during a meeting April 21.

"The more that we can expose students to dual language, I think is really important," board Vice Chairwoman Tiffanie Robinson, of Chattanooga, said in a phone interview.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga Preparatory to open new school in Knoxville)

McDaniel said the idea came from community members who wanted more bilingual options for their children.

"Our team thought that what was important to us was that we were designing something that parents and families really, really wanted. So, we led with the question always of, 'What are your hopes and your dreams for your kids?' And bilingualism kept coming up and kept coming up in a lot of different ways," McDaniel said.

In Hamilton County, existing immersion programs and schools, like St. Peter's Episcopal School, cater only to preschool through fifth grade, giving parents limited options once their children age out.

McDaniel said he and his team at BES Inc. wanted to change that, but very few immersion models existed for middle and high schoolers.

"We studied a lot of models regionally and nationally. I met one-on-one with immersion directors to ask them explicitly what this would look like with a sixth-grade start. That's how we built the parameters of our model. I also did a residency at St. Peter's to learn their immersion model and learn from their school leaders," McDaniel said.

McDaniel said organizers thought carefully about how to balance academic demands with language learning.

"We were also strategic about where we could immerse kids in another language (their nonnative language) that wouldn't have testing implications," he wrote, explaining that subjects like math are best taught in a student's native language while gym class is a better space to develop vocabulary and fluency.

In the past decade, the percentage of Hispanic and Latino students enrolled at Hamilton County Schools has grown from 2% in 2010 to 17% in 2021.

"The population increase has really been kind of shocking to the district in that we are receiving a number of students that are not English native speakers," Robinson said.

A 2017 study published in the American Educational Research Journal found dual immersion programs improve both English and non-English speakers' academic performance and language skills by the time they reach middle school. It also found that non-English speakers enrolled in dual immersion programs are less likely to be classified as English learners in sixth grade compared to their peers.

Another benefit is cultural sensitivity, McDaniel said.

"There's lot of cultural exposure that can happen through a bilingual model, and then also a celebration of different cultures within the school, which will provide a lot of really cool opportunities to promote higher levels of empathy," McDaniel said.

While a school location hasn't been determined, McDaniel said the East Lake area is ideal due to its large Hispanic and Latino population.

"It's just important for us to be located geographically close to the families and students that we're serving to make it easier to get to and from school and for families to be involved," he said.

Once the school opens it will enroll 100 sixth graders and 50 seventh graders. It will add 100 new sixth graders each year until it is fully grown through 12th grade. Students will be accepted by lottery.

Contact Carmen Nesbitt at or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @carmen_nesbitt.