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Spanish Immersion Attracts Students in Kentucky - 2002-12-16

Learning a second language is second nature in many countries, but not in the United States. While students are encouraged to take foreign language classes, becoming bi-lingual is not a national educational priority. But for some parents, it is… and they can choose to send their children to one of the nearly 300 language immersion schools around the United States. At these schools, students not only study a foreign language, they study in it - using it in all their classes, from science to history. A Spanish immersion school in Lexington, Kentucky has parents clamoring to get their kids in.

Students at Maxwell Spanish Immersion Elementary School begin with the basics of Spanish in kindergarten, at age five…

Over the next few years, they are introduced to the Spanish language and culture by Spanish Arts teacher Ivonne Beegle. The Cuban-born teacher also spent several years in Nicaragua before her parents moved to the United States… and she brings experiences from both Hispanic countries into her classroom. "We do cooking activities. We do dances. We learn about other countries. What children do in those countries that are the same age as our children. It's a very holistic class," she says. "They learn geography. They learn a little about social studies. They learn a little bit about culture and language. They learn their own language because they compare it to English. In Spanish we do not capitalize the days of the week. In English we do and so they learn those rules by comparison."

Kindergarten, 1st and 2nd graders spend a portion of every class learning Spanish. Maxwell Principal Fabio Zulagua says when a child advances to 3rd, 4th and 5th grade, Spanish is spoken exclusively in several subjects. "The fifth grade level for example the students take three subjects and those subjects are completely taught in Spanish. Those subjects are Spanish Language Arts, and then they take also Science, which I would say that Science is probably 90 percent of the time, 90 of the concepts are taught in Spanish. The same thing applies to Math," he says.

In fifth grade, math is the province of Chilean teacher Georgette Bouvy.

Principal Zulagua says one rule of the immersion movement process, is that only Spanish may be spoken in science and math classes. "Once the child is in the Spanish classroom, the child only hears, listens and speaks Spanish all the time. Therefore nothing can be done in English, even though, if the Spanish teacher speaks English very well, she cannot revert or she can not use English at any time during her class," he says.

Maxwell Elementary is a magnet public school. That means there's no tuition, but parents must apply to have their children attend. Since the school opened 12 years ago, there have been so many applications for the 492 student slots, its classrooms have always been full. Children are only admitted to the school at the Kindergarten level. This past year, 257 students applied to attend Kindergarten, with openings for only 100. Maxwell is also required to maintain a diverse student body.

More than a quarter of the children are African-American or Hispanic. Parents are expected to be active in their children's education… from sponsoring bake sales to helping out as teacher assistants during the school day. Monika Fowler, whose son Satchel is in 3rd grade, says he's learning more than just his ABC's at Maxwell. "He is more aware of other cultures. His teachers every year have been from a different country. All the Spanish teachers are native to their countries and none of them are American and it's really interesting," she says. "He had Senor Swilsky, who was from Peru, and he came home talking about Machu Picchu and the Nasca lions and when he was studying Colombia he was talking about the food. His teacher would bring her guitar and sing Colombian songs."

While immersion schools have been successful in several areas of the United States, they take a special effort to establish. Administrators must recruit native-speaking Teachers, often from other countries, purchase special non-English textbooks and set up a strict curriculum. But the students, teachers and parents of Maxwell Spanish Immersion Elementary agree it's worth it.