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For kindergartners, a "sí" change


Spanish at Prince George's schools

Ovetta Wiggins-The Washington Post | 1/5/2015, 12:08 p.m.
For kindergartners, a "sí" change
Ifunanya Okeye, left, and Darlin Salazar are seen in a Spanish immersion class at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Hyattsville, Md. | Linda Davidson/The Washington Post

Kindergarten spanish teacher Mariluz Mendez watches as Isis Vidals performs a math problem at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Hyattsville, Md., on Dec. 18. The school is one of three in the Prince George's County School District conducting spanish immersion programs.

Linda Davidson/The Washington Post

Kindergarten spanish teacher Mariluz Mendez watches as Isis Vidals performs a math problem at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Hyattsville, Md., on Dec. 18. The school is one of three in the Prince George's County School District conducting spanish immersion programs.

Spanish teacher Mariluz Mendez works with her students, left to right, Yaritza Martinez, Adejolee Adebiyi, Yukari Lopez and Dominick Ricks on match exercises at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Hyattsville, Md.

Linda Davidson/The Washington Post

Spanish teacher Mariluz Mendez works with her students, left to right, Yaritza Martinez, Adejolee Adebiyi, Yukari Lopez and Dominick Ricks on match exercises at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Hyattsville, Md.

Kindergarten teacher Mariluz Mendez flipped over several flashcards and waited for her students to identify the images.

When she raised the picture of a shower, the students yelled “ducha” in unison.

When she revealed an image of a dolphin, they hesitated. Then, they said “delfín.”

And when she raised the flashcard with a stack of money on it, they quickly shouted “dinero.”

“Muy bien,” Mendez said.

The reading exercise is part of a growing effort in Prince George’s County to immerse young students in a foreign language. In Room 2 at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Hyattsville, the students are less than halfway through the school year, and some of the kindergartners, who had never spoken a foreign language before entering Mendez’s class, are now reading books in Spanish.

“They are like sponges,” said Evylyn Quiñones, the school’s teacher in charge and testing coordinator. “They grab everything at this age.”

Cesar Chavez is one of three schools in Prince George’s that formally started offering Spanish immersion as part of an expansion of educational options for children this year. Each of the elementary schools — Cesar Chavez, Overlook in Temple Hills and Phyllis E. Williams in Upper Marlboro — has three or four kindergarten classes and is scheduled to add the program in subsequent grades each school year. Students apply through a lottery system.

The district also offers Chinese immersion at Paint Branch Elementary School in College Park and French immersion at Robert Goddard French Immersion School in Lanham and John Hanson French Immersion in Temple Hills.

Marty Abbott, executive director of the American Council on Teaching of Foreign Languages, said the number of school districts that use a foreign-language immersion model rises annually. Spanish is the most popular foreign language taught in U.S. schools, while Chinese is seeing a significant increase, and strong interest remains for French, Abbott said.

Hoping to become more competitive in a global economy, Abbott said Utah and Delaware have made foreign-language immersion a priority. Each state’s goal is to build a workforce that can collaborate with multi-national companies, she said.

It is one of the reasons why Gina Bowler and her friend Delores Millhouse, two parents who didn’t have children in the public school system a year ago, lobbied for Schools Chief Kevin M. Maxwell to add Spanish immersionto the district’s list of offerings.

Bowler said she wants to give her daughters all the advantages available to others. Prior to being accepted into Overlook’s program, Bowler’s daughter, Francesca Svizzero, attended a Spanish immersion preschool and weekend classes on Saturdays.

She said that she wants her daughters to not only become fluent in Spanish but also a third language. Bowler said she believes fluency in multiple languages will give them “many advantages in their academic lives, their professional lives and their personal lives. . . . Many people around the world are developing those skills, and I want my children to have those same benefits and advantages.”

At the Hyattsville school, kindergarten students are in a dual-language immersion program, during which they spend half of their day learning lessons in Spanish and the rest of the day learning lessons in English, Quiñones said.