Bilingual charter school Dreamers Academy breaks ground on a state-of-the-art campus
SARASOTA — The search for a permanent place site for a first-of-its-kind dual language charter school in Sarasota County, Dreamers Academy is over as the school recently broke ground to signal the start of construction on its new campus in the heart of Sarasota’s historic Newtown community.
The 43,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art school will include breakout spaces for small group instruction, an outdoor learning area, and a playground that will be designed by the school’s students.
Dreamer’s Biblioteca Tech Center, a grant-funded multilingual media center that will house an ample collection of engaging books in both Spanish and English, will anchor the school and encourage students to read, think, and speak in both languages.
Construction of Dreamers Academy is slated to be completed next summer. The new school will be across the street from Booker Middle School at 2146 Myrtle Street. It is expected to be open for kindergarten through fifth grade at the start of the next school year in August 2023.
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The bond approval to finance Dreamers Academy marked the first time the Florida Development Finance Corporation state agency has issued a bond that invested in a new public charter school. The state’s education committee, as well as Gov. Ron DeSantis, signed off on the issued bond to finance the construction.
In addition, Dreamers Academy worked with Highmark School Development to design a unique financing option that gives the school direct ownership of itself; the school will not have to lease the building space following construction completion.
Since opening in 2021, Dreamers Academy held classes at the Jewish Family & Children’s Service campus on Tuttle Avenue. The need filled by the school to serve the community’s growing multicultural population has become apparent.
The school said it had 100% teaching staff retention going into its second school year and 200 teachers applied for staff positions for the current school year between January 2021 and late May.
Driven by The Dual Language Immersion model, Dreamers Academy educates kindergarten through fifth-grade students in both Spanish and English in its classrooms. The model allows students to retain their native language skills, and their culture, while also learning a second.
Approximately 23% of Floridians speak Spanish, but students who speak Spanish at home often convert to English at school. At Dreamers, students are taught under a 50/50 split, learning one day in English and the next day in Spanish.
The Dreamers Academy model has earned recognition and has been lauded by parents, education advocates, and state educators in only its first year.
Florida Education Commissioner Manny Díaz, Jr., cited the school's success and applauded its work in finding the school a new permanent home.
“The dual language learning model is a proven success. When a child can speak two languages before middle school, there are nearly limitless opportunities for educational achievement,” Diaz said.
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Dreamers Academy founder Geri Chaffee visits the busy construction site on Myrtle Street often during the week.
Chaffee is unable to look into the site because of the construction fencing, so she parks her car across the street and stands on it to get a peek in anticipation of the long-awaited school she co-created with Head of School Dr. Cathy Rodriquez and School Registrar Erica Rivera.
“The program is very intentional. We look at the child and their family and build each classroom so that they have maximum learning opportunities for all the children.” Chaffee said.
Chaffee said that the program allows students to build on a foundation of both cultural and linguistic skills rather than discarding students' native tongue and culture.
“We don’t restrict what language the students speak in the classroom ... they get used to going from one language to the next very quickly. Their brains balance out and by fall they start taking linguistic risks in both languages. It becomes a bilingual brain, and they communicate in both languages,” Chaffee said.
Chaffee's hope with Dreamers Academy, in addition to completely closing the grade-level reading gap, is to inspire other school districts in Florida to take a good look at the dual language curriculum model.
According to a May report released by the district, third-graders dropped 3% in reading scores for the 2021-22 school year compared to the year prior. But the numbers show a gap: 13% of the county's Hispanic third-grade students are reading two or more levels below grade level. In comparison, only 6% of white third graders in the district are two or more grade levels behind in literacy and reading.
The Florida Department of Education cites a 14% gap in Language Artsachievement between white and Hispanic students. The same report shows a nearly 30 percentage point achievement gap in Language Arts between white students and African-American students statewide.
As an established instructional model approved and sanctioned by the state of Florida, the dual language curriculum could be the key to getting all children on the path to not only grade-level reading and literacy, Chaffee said.
She said that those at Title I schools (federally funded schools and programs with high percentages of low-income families or free and reduced students) can benefit most from the model. There are currently 16 Title I schools in the Sarasota County public school district.
“This model has been implemented across the country for many years. Scholars show that the academic impact of learning in two languages is astronomical... it just gets these children really engaged. It gets the families really engaged and it makes learning fun. Isn't that what we want for children in classrooms?”
Dreamers Academy is accepting student applications for kindergarten to 5th grade for the 2023-24 school year. Interested families can apply on the school website, at www.dreamersacademy.org
Samantha Gholar covers social justice news for the Herald-Tribune and USA TODAY Network. Connect with her at email@example.com or on Twitter: @samanthagholar