DANVILLE — At Schlarman Academy, foreign language instructor Eileen Eichelkraut greets kindergartners in Spanish as they enter her classroom and take their seats. Then she asks each one how they are.
"Como esta, Isabelle?"
"Bien," a girl sitting in the front row replies, giving the teacher two thumbs up.
"Perfecto! Como esta, Alec?"
"Asi, asi," he says, holding his hand out flat and tilting it back and forth to indicate "so, so."
"Como esta, Tom?"
"Mal," Tom answers, letting out a sigh and pointing a thumb down.
Students look at their classmate, who is hanging his head now. "Lo siento," which means "I'm sorry," they respond in unison.
Four weeks into the class, Eichelkraut is amazed at her students' grasp of the language, which many are learning for the first time.
"They're like little sponges, absorbing it all," she said of the 5- and 6-year-olds. According to the research, it's a good time to begin, she said. "That's when your brain is most capable of learning language."
During this 20-minute class, conducted almost entirely in Spanish, kindergartners do the sign of the cross and sing songs. Then they practice the names of colors and count from one to 20.
When several students get antsy, Eichelkraut issues a mild reprimand.
"Clase, ojos en la profesora, manos juntas y bocas cerrada," she says, first pointing to her eyes, then waving her hands, then pointing to her mouth. She proceeds when they turn their attention back to her, fold their hands together and close their mouths.
The Catholic school has offered four years of French and Spanish at the high school for many years. When the new pre-K-12 academy opened last year, officials began exposing elementary school students to those languages through an online program by Rosetta Stone.
This year, officials expanded the program by adding staff with funding from a $1.5 million capital campaign to support programs of excellence, among other things. Eichelkraut teaches French and Spanish to students at the academy's pre-K-6 campus on Walnut Street. And Dan Xu teaches Mandarin Chinese to fifth- and sixth-graders there, and to junior high and high school students at the campus on North Vermilion Street.
"They even have lessons for the preschoolers, though they're not as intense," said Judith Watkins, Schlarman's director of world languages and guidance.
That makes the academy one of only a few schools in a 100- to 150-mile radius, outside of metropolitan areas, that provides foreign language instruction to elementary and secondary students on a daily basis, said Watkins, who examined programs throughout the Midwest.
"We're living in a global economy, and we want to prepare our students to compete and be leaders in that world," Principal Bob Rice said of stepping up the instruction.
He said early exposure to the languages gives students more time to master them, and teaches them about different cultures. It also improves their listening ability, memory and critical thinking, which increases learning in core classes.
And the kids enjoy it, Rice added. "When you go into a classroom, you see the engagement. It's not like listening to tapes."
Watkins said K-4 students get a semester of French and Spanish each year. By the time they start fifth grade, they can select whether they want to study French, Spanish or Mandarin. French, Spanish and now Mandarin are offered as electives at the high school, where Meggin Cooper teaches French and new teacher, Sol Angel Tindera, teaches Spanish.
Schlarman was able to introduce Mandarin this year, after Watkins applied to the Chinese Guest Teacher Program. A collaboration of the College Board and China's Hanban/Confucious Institute, the program places teachers from China at schools in the United States.
Watkins said the academy is one of only 172 schools in the country to get a teacher this year, and one of two schools in Illinois.
Xu's classroom on the elementary school campus is decorated with the Chinese flag and a large map of China. Her class reviews numbers and learns the words for dog and cat — gou and mao — both the pronunciation and Chinese characters. Then students practice the words in conversation with each other.
"It's hard, but it's fun," sixth-grader Sarah Craig says of the class, which she said is her favorite this year.