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Inspired - Dual Language Spanish Immersion Program blossoms in pair of Lee County Schools

Inspired Ed4 CoverIn two of Lee County Schools’ eight elementary schools, there are different sounds emerging from one of the kindergarten classrooms. For the first time at Broadway and Tramway Elementary Schools, some students are able to take part in Spanish-language immersion learning for their kindergarten experience.

There are 16 kindergarten students at Tramway and 23 currently at Broadway that have been able to participate this year, and the district has plans to continue growing the program annually, adding a new grade level each year until the program is a K-5 offering.

“Any new initiative is a little scary. You make the commitment and then you step back and think, did I just make the right choice for my school and our community?” said Tramway Elementary Principal Andrea Cummings. “I feel like I owe it to our students and their families, to be able to give them a different choice, an opportunity to help make their child more marketable in the future workforce.”

Broadway Elementary Principal Ricky Secor echoed those comments, “This was just an opportunity that, when it was made available to us, just felt like a natural fit for what we want to do here, which is give kids as many opportunities to explore and figure out what they are supposed to be. To provide Spanish in kindergarten is just the best time to do it, as early as possible.”

Research has continually shown that the brains of bilingual people are more developed in areas that organize and process speech. Students in dual language programs consistently outperform monolingual peers on state-mandated tests, regardless of demographics.

Dual Lang 1The first fruits of these programs here in Lee County are starting to show already. Nancy Wazenegger’s son Malachi is enrolled in the program and she was amazed at how much progress her son has shown. “After the first week of school he was starting to pick up Spanish immediately. It has been amazing how I took two semesters of Spanish in college and he already, by about mid-year, had already bypassed my two semesters. He is understanding what people are saying, which is just amazing to me,” she explained.

“Just the fact that this program requires students to use so much of their brain all the time, just to try and make meaning of things that you do not fully understand. The more active your brain is, the more you are going to learn and grow. You have to work it out, you have to exercise it to grow,” emphasized Secor.

Cummings agreed, “When you walk into that classroom, all of the children are engaged and learning. You can see it in their verbal responses, in their non-verbal responses, and in their body language. Their eyes never go off of that teacher. They do not miss a minute. They can’t.”

Secor highlighted how special an opportunity this could be for some students, saying, “For these kids in school now, retirement age is in the 2080’s. I don’t know what this world is going to look like then. But I do know that the more opportunities we create, the more doors they can open later on throughout their lives.”

The immersion program at Broadway and Tramway is a 90:10 model, also known as a full immersion program. This means that 90% of instruction in both kindergarten and first grade is delivered in Spanish with the remaining 10% delivered in English with special classes like art, music, and PE. In second grade, English literacy instruction is introduced and the instructional time in Spanish decreases each year until there is a 75:25 ratio by the end of the K-5 program.

Broadway’s Spanish-immersion teacher, Sara Pardo, is a 15-year teaching veteran in her native country, Colombia. It has been challenging for her to adjust to a new country, new school, and a new place to call home, but she is energized by her students. “It has been a wonderful experience for me and the kids. They feel so proud of what they are doing in this classroom. They are proud of learning another language, and that has been amazing for me.”

Dual Lang student engagementOne of her true passions is bringing out the best in students, and it shows daily in her classroom. “I love that they can learn Spanish, but even more than learning another language, it is them being motivated to be here, in the school and learning.” She added, “The school has supported me in everything, and that really has been the best thing. It is that support that has helped me to do my job in the best way.”

When Pardo describes the support of the school community, she really means it. When she got her first place to live here, several months into her stay in the area, she needed everything. The Broadway staff came together and did a housewarming celebration for her, providing kitchen equipment, towels, and other basic items needed to make a house feel like home.

Secor described the bond he has seen between Ms. Pardo and the staff saying, “She kept using the term ‘family’ and we want to be her family away from her family in Colombia. This is a big jump, a big leap of faith for her. She is coming here for years. She is trusting that this is going to be a great fit for her, and I appreciate that faith she had in us.”

Paola Matallana’s story as the kindergarten Spanish-immersion teacher at Tramway is similar. “This year, I got here and immediately had to start teaching. I did not have the two weeks of work days for planning and such. I got here and we did not have the books yet, because they were delayed. They came a few weeks later. It was hard, but now that I have the resources in Spanish, I feel more comfortable and feel so supported,” she emphasized.

Ms. Matallana comes from a different part of Colombia than Ms. Pardo, but has really enjoyed the challenge of teaching here at Tramway.  I really like working here with Ms. Cummings. I have enjoyed the freedom to teach my students. I use the same topics in my classrooms that other students are learning in their classrooms, but the difference is it is in Spanish and some of my methodology changes.”

It is easy to hear the difference in Ms. Matallana or Ms. Pardo’s teaching, but one thing that simply cannot be described without seeing it, is the joy that they express and help their students see through the cultural exchange that is ongoing. “I love dancing,” Matallana exclaimed. “On Fridays we celebrate and we dance. So, the students have started, when I ask them what day it is, they don’t say a simple ‘Viernes,’ they dance when they say it.”

Pardo noted similar experiences, “Now they sing in Spanish. We say instructions in Spanish, and they understand. It is just exciting, it is almost like a game for them, when we say that ‘I can’t remember that word in Spanish’ and they respond with that word in Spanish and have confidence that they can do it.”

Secor observed, ”I see more confident students. I see more confident teachers. I see kids that are excited to tell me about this thing that they are learning.” He added, “I see kids who have done things at home that their parents bring back to me with big smiles on their faces saying, ‘I don’t know what they’re saying all the time, but they’re very proud of themselves.’”

Ms. Wazenegger concurred, “Malachi has never been a kid who was excited about school but, he loves to tell people that he is learning how to speak Spanish. I have been very surprised at how quickly he is picking up reading, both in English and in Spanish. He is not the best reader in the class, but it has amazed me how [the program/learning environment] has almost triggered something in his brain.”

“I hope that my students take some of my culture. I hope that they can be spontaneous, happy, and optimistic. I also hope they learn to be empathetic, and understand that others are different,” explained Matallana, describing her goals for students beyond the basic curriculum.

“We went from I could barely fill the classroom with 16 students, to almost half of the people interested in coming to Tramway wanted to be in dual language,” explained Cummings. “I’m just so glad we moved forward with it when we did. We have gotten some remarkable talent from the teaching side. The kids are happy. Parents are happy.”

Ms. Wazenegger vehemently agreed, “It is scary to send your child off to kindergarten the first time, and then on top of that you are putting them in a classroom where they may not understand anything someone is telling them, but our children are so much better at adapting than we are. They will adapt. They will figure it out.” She concluded, “I don’t know how they are going to keep people out of this program. I can only speak positively about it.”

James Alverson