In a kindergarten classroom at Sherrills Ford Elementary School, two groups of students are practicing reading skills with the teacher and teacher assistant, while a third group sits at a nearby writing station, composing sentences and pictures to go with them. As I approach the tables, one student informs me that the fellow next to her has a crush on his classmate. She points to the picture he has drawn of himself and the girl, standing side-by-side in a field. “He’s going to marry her, because she’s pretty,” the kindergartner reports. That statement is one of just a handful of English sentences you will hear in this particular kindergarten classroom, part of Sherrills Ford’s new Spanish immersion program.
For the bulk of the day, students are learning numbers, vocabulary words, STEM concepts and global awareness—in other words, the kindergarten curriculum—all en español. Their lead teacher is Luisa Cappai, who came from Venezuela last year through Participate, a Chapel Hill-based educational support firm which helps equip schools with teachers and training for their language immersion programs and global instruction. “It’s really transformed our whole school,” said Assistant Principal Amy Gates. Rising kindergartners may apply starting March 18.
At the orientation meeting for this year’s immersion program, Cappai said, parents were nervous. What if my child is overwhelmed with learning a new language along with adjusting to starting school? What if I don’t speak Spanish? Can I still help my child with homework? To observe the classroom after just a few months’ instruction, you would never know there were jitters at the outset. Kindergarten teacher Luisa Cappai helps students practice reading skills. In fact, the transition to kindergarten was quite smooth, said Gates. “It’s totally different than the way we learned a language,” Gates said. It helped that Cappai’s daughter—also a kindergartner—is going through a similar immersion. Fluent in Spanish only, Cappai’s daughter is now enrolled in a regular English-language kindergarten class at Sherrills Ford. “I think we are all happy—the kids, the parents, myself—because they are all engaged and motivated,” said Cappai. “You can see how much they’ve learned, and that’s because they’re committed and their parents are committed.”
Each new cohort of Spanish-immersion kindergartners, and their families, will be expected to commit to the program through sixth grade. As Gates sees it, the benefits of Spanish immersion will extend well beyond the students’ elementary-school years. Fluency and literacy in Spanish will be a boon to those applying for college and careers. The Catawba County Chamber of Commerce reports that Spanish proficiency is an increasingly sought-after skill among local employers. “You’re sending your five-year-old, but you’re preparing your young adult,” Gates said.
The kindergarten curriculum is taught 90% in Spanish, with English allowed at snacktime, recess and lunch. When students transition to higher grades, the Spanish portion is reduced somewhat so that English phonics and other reading skills can be taught in preparation for end-of-grade testing, which begins in third grade. The program that began this year also included a first-grade class, taught by Vanessa Ramos. The structure of her classroom is similar to Cappai’s, but, understandably, the students are tackling more complex concepts. When I visited, they were reading an extensive list of Spanish vocabulary.
Back in the kindergarten classroom, Cappai displays a book, composed on construction paper and entirely in Spanish, by a kindergartner named Ava. The inspiration? Cappai asked Ava what she wanted to be when she grew up. When Ava replied that she wanted to be a doctor, Cappai said, “Don’t you want to be a writer?” Ava brought the book in the next day. “She told me, ‘See, Señora Cappai, I wrote a book!’” Cappai said. The mom of another student sent a note to the kindergarten teacher to report that her daughter had made her own Spanish flashcards at home and was teaching her dolls to speak Spanish. The excitement is contagious.
“They learn while they are having fun,” Cappai said. “They are always excited to learn. As a teacher, it’s very important because I can use all this excitement to encourage me.”
Publisher's Note: Catawba County Schools is opening their Dual Language Immersion program up to rising Kindergarteners beginning Monday, March 18th at 8:00 AM. Registration is on a first-come-first-serve basis and is based on availability. More information is available here: https://catawbaschools.weebly.com/
Newton-Conover City Schools and Hickory Public Schools also offer similar programming at North Newton and Southwest Elementary for native English and native Spanish speakers. Contact Newton-Conover City Schools at https://www.newton-conover.org/ and Hickory Public Schools http://www.hickoryschools.net/
Erica Batten is the Publisher of Sherrills Ford Pioneer, an online news outlet for the neighbors of Sherrills Ford, NC and Terrell, NC. Find more of her work at www.sfpioneer.com
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