One of the best ways to learn a new language is to be immersed in it. Starting this fall, 25 kindergartners in Fox Chapel Area School District will be doing just that.
“The benefits to students are enormous,” said teacher Alexis Bergau, who will teach the first cohort of the district’s Spanish immersion pilot program. The district intends to continue and grow the program each subsequent year.
“They become bilingual very quickly. They start to understand their teachers almost immediately and then are able to produce language within a few years.”
Bergau said there are windows of brain development when it’s easier to access a second language, and that introducing kids to language early is key.
Ashley Constantine is the executive director of elementary education and instruction in the district. She said that Fox Chapel is wrapping up construction of a new elementary school and wanted new programs to be introduced at the same time. In addition to a new Pre-K program, district leaders decided on a Spanish immersion program because of its many benefits. She said the program will be the only one of its kind in the area.
“Dual immersion students outperform their peers in standardized measures of reading and math by almost a year,” said Constantine. “In addition to that we've talked to our parents about the fact that proficiency in a second language leads to more employment opportunities ... We also talk about some of those non-cognitive factors such as social sensitivity and cultural competencies.”
When the district first informed parents about the program, there were some concerns. Some families worried they wouldn’t be able to help their children with homework, if they were only learning in Spanish.
“A parent's job is not to be their child’s Spanish teacher,” said Bergau. “Their job is to be the parent. So their job is to read to their child like they normally would in English at home … the homework should be an extension of what they've already learned during the day. It should be nothing new. You don't need to go out and get a math degree to help your child with their math homework. You don't need to go out and get a Spanish degree.”
The curriculum of the Spanish immersion cohort will run parallel to the mainstream classes.
“The math program is the same as it is in English it's just delivered in Spanish,” said Bergau. “There might be texts that are slightly different in the Spanish language arts but the general skills that are addressed are the same.”
Constantine said one of the biggest barriers to starting such a program is finding qualified teachers to operate it.
“I'm just excited to get going and I can't wait,” said Bergau. “I know this will happen but I can't wait for the day that parents tell me that their child started dreaming in Spanish, started speaking in Spanish to their little brothers and sisters at home, started asking to watch TV shows in Spanish and looking for Spanish music to sing along with, just to know that it actually it's not just something that exists at school.”
The 25 students will be chosen through a random selection process. Constantine said they have already received more applications for the program than there are seats. Applications will be received until May 17.