Bilingual program is about 'building bridges'
URBANA — How many corners are in a square? How many sides?
Most kindergartners would answer "four."
But for kids in the dual-language program at two Urbana elementary schools, the answer is "cuatro."
The school district this year started a dual-language program in kindergarten and first grade at Leal and Prairie schools. There are a total of six classrooms — four kindergartens and two first grades — in which English and Spanish speakers learn together in both languages.
Right now, they're learning 90 percent in Spanish and 10 percent in English. As they advance in grades, that will gradually change to 50 percent Spanish, 50 percent English.
The ultimate goal is that all students in the classrooms become bilingual.
Leal Principal Spencer Landsman said he hasn't seen any native English-speaking students stressed out about being taught in Spanish.
"They are totally unfazed," Landsman said, and they figure things out. "I haven't even seen a perplexed look."
Guadalupe Ricconi, the Urbana school district's interim director of bilingual and multicultural programs, said she has enjoyed seeing students go through phases of language acquisition just as research on the topic predicts.
For example, native English speakers began the year by answering questions in Spanish with answers in English. They understood the questions but didn't necessarily feel confident replying in the same language.
Now, they're beginning to answer in Spanish, and young students, especially, quickly gain confidence in speaking a new language, Ricconi said.
Landsman said he recently stopped in one of the dual-language classrooms, and a native English speaker's first inclination was to ask him a question in Spanish.
"Little sponges, they are," he said.
Most of the 10 percent the dual-language students learn in English is in music, drama, art or dance class. At Leal each Friday, all kindergartens and first grades (from both traditional and dual-language classrooms) mix together to do special activities with teachers. Those activities may be in English or Spanish, depending on what teacher is leading the activity and the day. At Prairie, students and teachers are doing other activities to make sure traditional and dual-language classes are integrated, Ricconi said.
Ricconi has also met with a parent advisory committee of parents of dual-language students from both Prairie and Leal. Many parents are interested in learning about how to support their children in the dual-language classrooms, and parents of native English speakers, especially, are interested in how they'll be able to help their kids with homework.
Some are learning Spanish themselves, Ricconi said.
Steph Adams, whose daughter, Saskia, is in a dual-language kindergarten class at Leal, said one challenge has been figuring out how parents of English and Spanish speakers can form a community that will bring their children together.
"Learning Spanish is about much more than learning another language; it is about building bridges among people and understanding there are different realities," Adams said. "Parents would like to have opportunities for families to interact and get to know each other."
She said they're hoping to get their kids together over the summer, or figure out ways to have extracurricular activities to support their kids.
"Our challenge as parents is to take a stronger role in our children's education," Adams said. "The district has provided us with this amazing program, but they cannot be solely responsible for creating a community for us."
Ricconi said the idea of creating a community is especially important because the students will be together for their entire elementary careers.
She said the dual-language classroom setting also builds confidence for students because they are or will support their peers as they learn a new language.
For example, in Luz Rios' kindergarten classroom, one native English speaker asked a question in Spanish. The Spanish-speaking boy sitting at the table next to her gave her a high-five.
As the students advance and are taught in a more equal proportion of English and Spanish, the native English speakers will have the same opportunities to support their Spanish-speaking classmates, Ricconi said.
Adams said her daughter is learning quickly.
"She has automatically started naming things she knows in Spanish — all colors, numbers, letters and animals are now identified in Spanish," Adams said.
Kindergartner Nora Evans said she knew a little bit of Spanish when starting school, but knows much more.
"It's actually quite fun," she said, adding that she's never gotten confused. "It's nice, 'cause I can talk to more people."
Rios said all students are learning about their cultural differences.
"To be bilingual is to be bicultural," Rios said.
Cristina Benito, a kindergarten teacher here as a part of the school district's exchange with Spain, said she finds herself being more theatrical as she tries to convey meanings to native English speakers.
Adams said her daughter doesn't have any trouble understanding Benito, her teacher.
"We do not speak Spanish at home, and yet even though the class instruction is in Spanish, she is adjusting well to being immersed in something completely new," Adams said. "Saskia claims she can understand almost everything the teacher says, to which I credit the teacher's ability to demonstrate concepts in several different ways."
Adams said she'd like to see dual-language continue in middle and high school, and Ricconi said finding ways to continue it at the secondary level are being discussed. She said the school district will look for ways students can learn content through classes taught in Spanish for those who are already bilingual.
Ada Stamper, whose son, Adain, is a kindergartner in Rios' class, said she likes the opportunities to share the students' cultures. It has taught students that Spanish speakers in Urbana are from many nations with different cultures, accents and slang. For instance, she knows families from Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia and Costa Rica.
"Every (cultural heritage) deserves the opportunity to shine," Stamper said, and teaching students about culture now will benefit them and even give them the opportunity to pass it on to their children.
Plus, Latino students are learning confidence and the ability to express their feelings from their American classmates, she said.
She's from Peru and is bilingual because the school she attended emphasized that students needed to learn English, she said.
"In this world right now, there's a need to be bilingual," Stamper said.
Bilingual classrooms have given both students — and parents — an opportunity to share and learn from each other. For instance, sometimes Spansh-speaking adults from different cultures have to compare different words for the same objects, she said.
And when two parents are talking in one language another parent doesn't understand, better communication and understanding help the third parent from automatically assuming they're talking about him or her.
That's true for both English- and Spanish-speaking parents, she said.
"We understand each other better and communicate better," she said of parents who have students in the program.