Challenged to a Dual – NJEXCEL Alumna Dineen Gruchacz Brings Dual Language Immersion to Princeton

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By Daniel Higgins

Dineen Gruchacz no es alguien que dice no a una buena oportunidad, para sí misma o para sus alumno (is not someone who says no to a good opportunity, for herself or for her students.)

Following a 10-year career in the private sector as a technology writer for AT+T, Dineen Gruchacz paused to raise her four children in Sergeantsville, NJ before embarking on a teaching career in Princeton in 2005. Five years later, it was a conversation with Dr. Jeff Graber, assistant superintendent at the time and currently the assistant director of FEA’s NJEXCEL program, that introduced her to NJEXCEL, where she could earn her principal and supervisor certification in only 12 months.

“It was very practical and very useful because of those very realistic experiences through those internships,” Gruchacz said recalling how much she learned through her cohort and the projects she undertook. “As soon as I completed the program in July of 2010, a position for a principal became available in Great Meadows in Warren County. So I applied and I got that job, which I think speaks very well for the program.”

Less than one year later, the principal of Community Park Elementary School in Princeton announced her retirement. Gruchacz contacted then-Superintendent Judy Wilson and applied. “I loved Judy and loved working for her, and I had a lot of friends in Princeton, so I was very happy to be able to come back,” Gruchacz said.

It certainly would have been an easy option to settle into this role and comfortably manage a proven and productive faculty and staff and keep a standard curriculum that was working well. In fact, she did not enter Community Park with a grand plan of “shaking things up,” but that changed when Priscilla Russell, Supervisor of World Language and ESL, approached her about bringing Dual Language Immersion to the district. From that moment, Gruchacz was hooked and set into action a plan to provide her students with 50 percent of daily core instruction time in Spanish. “I was the crazy person who thought this is fascinating,” she recalled. “I was very interested in the idea of kids learning another language while learning the content, and all the other cognitive advantages that learning another language or being bilingual brings along with it.”

Fortunately for Gruchacz, she did not have to worry about one of the most difficult tasks in starting an immersion program — hiring Spanish-speaking teachers. Community Park happened to already have three excellent native Spanish-speaking elementary school teachers who had been in the district for a long time and knew the community and its culture well. This was a key to getting the program off the ground. It also helped to alleviate some of the concerns of the faculty who understandably feared being replaced because they did not speak Spanish. New Spanish-speaking teachers have been hired only to replace those lost through natural attrition and retirement.

By 2015, the first cohort of Spanish Language immersion began in kindergarten and first grade. Parents of those students were given an option: their child could either choose the traditional route or the dual language immersion program, which would be divided into two classrooms of 22 students each. While one class was taking English Language Arts, social studies, and specials in English, the other class would have Spanish Language Arts, science, and math in Spanish. Halfway through the day, the two classes would then switch.

The popularity of the program was verified during registration the following years. “In 2016-17, we had to have a lottery because we had more kids than spaces. In 2018-19, we only had 3 or 4 kids sign up for traditional kindergarten, because everyone wanted immersion,” Gruchacz said. Eventually, Princeton opened the program to children in other elementary schools to transfer to Community Park, and Community Park students who preferred the traditional route could attend a different school in the district. Gruchacz predicts that if Community Park continues on its current path, it will be an all DLI school by Fall 2023.

Still, the conversion to immersion was not without its problems and challenges. Having some students in the dual language immersion track and others in the traditional sets up some natural dichotomy between the students, and even among the parents. Knowing this can happen, Gruchacz and the faculty make a conscious effort to include all students in as many co-activities as possible so that the school can better function as one. Challenges can also occur when there is student conflict within the traditional class, and those students cannot be separated, as there is only one traditional track in a grade. The dual language immersion program also necessitates that students begin the program in kindergarten, so parents cannot start in the traditional route and then choose to join immersion later. Transfers also cannot join mid-year, once the cohort has started.

However, through all of the challenges and scheduling difficulties, Gruchacz is very pleased with the program and delights in hearing the stories of her students speaking Spanish in school and in the community. “I’m really proud of the fact that it has been sustained for this long,” she said. “We hear stories from parents about their children ordering food in Spanish at restaurants, or going to a concert or meeting new friends at sports and being able to interact with the performers and players.

As much as English-speaking students benefit from immersion, Spanish-speaking students gain perhaps even more, not only in math and science, but in the Spanish Language Arts class as well. “In many places where immersion is put in place, it is done to help minimize the achievement gap for low socio-economic students, who often come from Spanish-speaking countries,” she explained. “For kids who speak Spanish at home, who are from Central America or Mexico, these kinds of programs are good for them because this program builds up their Spanish; it doesn’t take it away. And they’re also learning English at the same time. It’s not a subtractive program.”

Unfortunately for Gruchacz, the research shows that the students will not truly see the full benefit of immersion in terms of test scores until they leave her school. “Other districts and places that have had immersion programs have seen that kids who take standardized tests in English for the first or second time may not perform as well as their non-immersion peers,” she explained. “However, by 5th or 6th grade, we start to see the immersion kids surpass their non-immersion peers. We’re not there yet, so we don’t have that data. Our expectation is that by the time they finish middle school, they will be truly bilingual.” More importantly, they will have a greater sense of culture, appreciation of language, and ability to develop high levels of academic achievement.