Language immersion programs aim to do much more than teach students a language

rsouthmayd@heraldonline.comDecember 28, 2013 

In a kindergarten classroom at Richmond Drive Elementary School, a boy approaches teacher Claudia Notaro and asks to use the bathroom.

“No hablo inglés,” she says.

The boy reconsiders, then asks, “Baño?”

This kindergarten classroom is one of six in three elementary schools in the Rock Hill school district that have language immersion programs. While in those rooms, students listen, speak and learn exclusively in a language that isn’t English.

Richmond Drive and Ebinport Elementary have Spanish programs, and at Rosewood Elementary the students learn French.

What makes language immersion programs different from the language classes most people studied in school is the way the language is delivered.

“All of our math and science is taught completely in Spanish,” said Richmond Drive principal Pat Maness. “And it works. It absolutely works.”

The ability for a child to learn a language so easily begins to close around age 10, Maness said. Combining the immersion and the young age greatly improves acquisition.

In Notaro’s kindergarten class, her students practice comparing numbers the way any kindergartener would. But the only language they hear, see or read in her room is Spanish. The same is true in any of the immersion classrooms. English is not allowed.

At Ebinport Elementary, Sandra Gonzalez’s first-graders work on addition and subtraction in Spanish.

“They’re having to think and learn a different way because they’re used to thinking in English, problem solving in English and now when they come to the classroom, they have to problem solve in Spanish,” she said.

But, she said, she’s at an advantage because the students already had a year of immersion instruction, so they’re used to listening and following directions in Spanish.

Parents are excited about what their children are learning, Gonzalez said. She heard from one parent that her child was even talking in his sleep in Spanish.

Shana Elkins is a teacher at Richmond Drive and the parent of a kindergartener in the Spanish immersion program.

“I have been very impressed and my son doesn’t know anything different,” she said. “This is just kindergarten for him; it’s completely normal.”

She said she sometimes catches her son singing to himself in Spanish. In the halls at Richmond, she said, you often hear students speaking Spanish to each other.

“Our kids are really funny because they’ll code-switch at any time,” Maness said.

To one teacher, a student will speak Spanish and to another, the student will switch back to English, he said, and it’s no problem for them.

“Yo me encanta a mi clase en español,” said Ebinport first-grader Lucy Rosenberg. “I love my Spanish class.”

Lucy is one of many students in these immersion classes who speaks a language other than English at her home. Her father speaks Spanish at home, she said, so she likes being able to practice at school.

At Richmond Drive, 20 percent of the students speak Spanish as their first language, and so for them, the program is more partial-immersion English.

And at Rosewood, principal Stephanie DiStasio has found that when her non-native English-speaking students learn French – their third language – it improves their confidence because they’re on the same level as their peers.

Each of the three language immersion schools currently has two kindergarten and two first-grade classes in the program, but another grade will be added each year because every student in those programs has been promised a language immersion program for the rest of their education in the district.

What that education will be beyond the elementary years is yet to be determined, said Judy Mobley, the district’s executive director of secondary education.

Even though it will be another four and a half years before the current immersion students move up to middle school, DiStasio said the district is already beginning to develop what the program might be in middle school and high school for these students.

“We know they are going to be at a very different place than we have had students in Rock Hill before,” she said.

The whole point of programs like this is to expose Rock Hill students to a “world perspective,” Mobley said. Acquiring these language skills will be a huge benefit.

“The career world is wide open for these kids,” she said.

One of the challenges the district faces in moving forward with this program is recruiting teachers with the language and education skills necessary to do the job, Mobley said.

“The key to having a good program is to have those energetic, fun-loving teachers,” she said.

In Marie-Claude Ouellet’s kindergarten class, the students clapped and sang along to some of their favorite French songs about the months of the year and the names of body parts before settling into a math lesson about planting fruits and vegetables.

There was plenty of laughter, and Notaro said that’s the way a class, language-based or not, should be.

“Learning the language is fun to them and they try hard to do it,” she said. “If it’s not fun, why bother?”

Ebinport and Richmond Drive are schools of choice for world language and Rosewood is a school of choice for the International Baccalaureate Primary Years program, which means parents who don’t live in the areas zoned for these schools can apply to send their children there. Even students who aren’t in the immersion programs still get 30 minutes of Spanish or French instruction every day.

The administration at these schools said the majority of the spots in the immersion programs are filled by students in their attendance zones.

Some of the classes even carried short waiting lists. But Mobley said she thinks those lists would be longer if more people in the community knew these types of programs were available.

“I think if the community knew what was going on, they’d truly be amazed,” she said.

Rachel Southmayd •  803-329-4072

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