The lunchroom chatter at Siler City Elementary School is the same as most. Students joke with one another, comment on the day’s menu, talk sports and TV. Listen closely, though, and you’ll hear a difference.

Two languages are spoken – English and Spanish.

Even out of class, beyond earshot of their teachers, students in Chatham County Schools’ first dual language/immersion program (DL/I) are at ease speaking two languages – a key goal of a school where every student spends time learning in both English and Spanish.

Now more than a decade old, the school’s DL/I program was adopted by the district to better serve Siler City’s growing population of Hispanic families and children, many of whom come to school with only limited mastery of English. Research shows that all children – English and non-English speakers alike – benefit from learning through a DL/I approach.

Because of the area’s changing demographics, the school has been able to reach the kind of balance between the two languages seen as key for successful “two-way” DL/I programs, where students divide about evenly between English speakers and speakers of the target or foreign language. Teachers help students transfer skills like reading from one language to the other and back again.

“Some of the teachers show the difference in language by changing hats, allowing children to know that they are moving from one language to the other,” says Larry Savage, principal of the school.

“Kids don’t seem to notice a difference,” he says. “Since our school takes them in at such a young age and exposes them to both English and Spanish language and culture, students expect that happens everywhere.”

Siler City Elementary is one of more than 120 schools in North Carolina, including three charters and five private schools, with some type of DL/I program. When it was launched in 2004, it was one of just eight “two-way” schools in the state. Now there are more than 30 programs that use the “two-way” model and a number of others that are full or partial immersion, bringing the total number of Spanish DL/I programs to more than 85.

With Hispanic students, who are the fastest growing population in North Carolina’s public schools, Spanish DL/I programs represent the vast majority of DL/I programs in the state. Yet nearly 30 others offer programs that immerse students in a wide diversity of languages: Cherokee, Chinese, French, German, Greek and Japanese.

Research here in North Carolina and on the national level shows students in DL/I schools compare favorably with students in regular, native-language schools.

A study of North Carolina’s DL/I programs has found that reading and math scores of DL/I students are higher overall, regardless of subgroup. By middle school, the researchers have found, most students in DL/I programs are performing a grade level ahead of non-DL/I students.

There are, however, challenges to teaching North Carolina’s standards in Spanish. William Urena-Blanco teaches fifth grade science in Spanish and has to translate and modify the curriculum to fit his students’ needs.

“Literal translations can be problematic because a similar sentiment can be expressed with different words,” Urena-Blanco says. He has spent the last two years adapting a text that aligns with the state’s content standards.

“It takes a while, but I can almost always find a way to get across the message,” he says.

Justin Tillett, the father of a first grader, says that he was impressed with the quality of the dual language/immersion program. “My babysitter is majoring in Spanish, and she is very impressed with his accent, saying even people in her program cannot speak with that kind of flourish.”

Tillett also said that he now wants to learn Spanish himself to help his child in his courses. “I want to be able to tutor my own child,” he says. “And since he already uses vocabulary from both languages at home, I want to learn the language to know exactly what he means.”

If parents don’t speak the second language, they still have full access to school information and can contact teachers through the bilingual staff. The school makes sure that bilingual teachers are available for parent-teacher conferences or any check-ins.

In just two years, the first cohort of students to enroll in Siler City Elementary’s DL/I program will graduate from Jordan-Matthews High School, where they have the option to continue their studies in Spanish and may earn the Global Languages Endorsement, North Carolina’s version of the Seal of Biliteracy that recognizes proficiency in English and another language.

Dual language/immersion programs such as Siler City Elementary continue to grow in popularity, among families who speak each language because they want their children to master a second language. In an increasingly global economy, bilingual students are well positioned with an increasingly marketable skill set. Graduates who have experienced DL/I programs, like the one at Siler City Elementary, move on to college and careers as biliterate, bilingual and culturally literate citizens.