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Staff file photo / Students listen to an instructor during a NewComer Academy class at Howard School in 2019. Howard launched NewComer Academy to help acclimate new Hispanic students who comprised nearly 60% of the school's 2019 freshmen class.

Time and again, we've written with regret about Tennessee's seemingly inexorable roll toward charter schools and school vouchers, which we generally see as siphons of money away from struggling public schools. Not today.

Today, we welcome an upstart aimed at helping bring equity and unity to meet the needs of our increasingly diverse student populations. ChattAcademy Community School, set to open its doors in 2023, will become the first school in East Tennessee with a Spanish/English dual immersion curriculum for middle and high school students.

This newly approved ChattAcademy gets the kind of welcome we've previously extended to the creation in Highland Park of Chattanooga Prep — an all-boys charter school much like the successful all-girls charter, Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy. Chattanooga Prep in four years has built such a strong reputation that Knoxville parents have successfully recruited a twin Chattanooga Prep there.

What we haven't welcomed, and still don't, is Gov. Bill Lee's invitation for Baptist-based Hillsdale College-spawned charter schools and their so-called "informed patriotic" education patterned in opposition to anything remotely close to The New York Times' 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory — a college program not even taught in secondary schools. But we digress.

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

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

This is no small thing in our community.

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

At The Howard School, for instance, the student body mix in April at the county's largest high school — 1,400 students — was 56% Hispanic. Just a dozen years ago, there were 12 Hispanic students there.

Last month, Howard Executive Principal LeAndrea Ware spoke of the language barriers.

"We know the state of Tennessee expects us to teach our students in English. But let's be honest. When you're trying to collaborate with parents who don't speak English, our job is to embrace them, connect with them and empower them to help us do the best that we can do for their students," she told the Times Free Press.

In-school "English to speakers of other languages classes," or ESOL, too often have a one-way set of lessons with spotty results. But 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.

Another benefit, of course, is cultural sensitivity. Students learn more than just language. As they learn with and from each other to converse together, they can also learn to be respectful friends together.

That is something far bigger than just offering ESOL instruction. It's teaching students to think and feel in two languages, not just one.

At Howard, the school's main field is known as the "Tiger Den" and "La Guarida de los Tigres." Hand-drawn signs in the halls read both "The Tiger Way" and "El Camino del Tigre" — reminding students to be ready, be responsible and be respectful.

"We're trying to show our students that this school also belongs to you," said English language learners coach Jose Otero. "And whenever a student comes to a school and they see a sign of a school, of an important building in the school, and they see [it] in English and in Spanish, that equals 'hope.' It equals 'I belong.' It equals 'I am a part of something.'"

McDaniel said the language immersion idea for ChattAcademy came from community members when charter school founders talked with local families. Researchers led with the question of, "What are your hopes and your dreams for your kids?" An answer that kept coming up in a lot of different ways was bilingualism, he 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. ChattAcademy hopes to change that. When 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.

The schools location has yet to be determined, but McDaniel said the East Lake area is ideal due to its large Hispanic and Latino population.

Hello, students! Welcome and learn well.

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