Bilingual preschools catching on

Desire to expand children's learning skills draws parents

It’s “circle time” at the Kids R Special Learning Center, time for the kids to huddle around and begin their first round of activities.

First, the signature Barney song.

“Te amo. Me amas. Somos una gran familia.”

Later, teacher Alina Christ held up a flashcard of a cow and asked, “Que dice una vaca?”

“Moo,” the kids answered.

This isn’t your typical Spanish program. Only one child at this Kirkland facility is Hispanic. And these kids are 4 and 5 years old; a few are still in diapers.

But they’re all learning their ABCs in English and Spanish.

Similar bilingual or language-immersion programs are starting at child-care centers and preschools around Puget Sound, offering Spanish, French, Chinese and Japanese lessons.

Buoyed by the belief that children can learn several languages at an early age or that a second language may improve their cognitive abilities, many parents are looking for bilingual programs for children who aren’t even old enough to attend kindergarten.

At the Memegumi preschool on Seattle’s Beacon Hill, where a third of the children are not Japanese, the kids are immersed in Japanese language and culture.

Nearby, at the Jose Marti Child Development Center, Hispanics make up a minority of the preschoolers, though they are the targeted group. Staffers had assumed the changing demographics of the neighborhood was the reason but discovered after a parent survey that the bilingual program was among the major draws.

At the La Escuelita Bilingual School near University Village in northeast Seattle, whites make up half of the 63 children who range from toddlers to kindergartners. There is a yearlong waiting list.

Bilingual child-care centers and preschools have been around the Puget Sound region for more than a decade, but they’ve mostly served immigrants who want their children to retain their cultural identity. The change in the past five years is that many Seattle natives are enrolling their children into those programs, said Faye Melton of Child Care Resources, a referral service.

Michael Genzuk, director of the Center for Multilingual, Multicultural Research at the University of Southern California, attributes the popularity mostly to the diversity of Seattle and to parents who believe their children will have an intellectual advantage if they learn a second language early in life.

Studies have shown that students with bilingual skills do better on mental exercises than other students, Genzuk said. They also have a better chance of correctly pronouncing words than if they were to start a second language later, he said.

But Genzuk opposes language-immersion programs for preschoolers who aren’t fluent in English, for fear it could hurt their development and distract them from learning other skills.

That hasn’t stopped parents from seeking bilingual options, especially the Romance languages.

Child Care Resources, which makes about 7,500 referrals a year in King County, gets inquiries for bilingual day-care centers and preschools, a request that was almost unheard of five years ago.

Christ, of Kirkland, was among the first to catch on. The Cuban native quit her job as a comptroller 11 years ago to run a day care from home to care for her daughter, Priscilla, and to make money by taking a few other toddlers.

Within 15 months, she had a dozen children and a waiting list. “They were excited that their children were exposed to a second language, and word got out,” she said.

In February, Christ opened the learning center, targeting infants to

12-year-olds, and nearly doubled her enrollment. She charges up to $185 a week.

Christ exposes the children as young as 14 months to Spanish songs. She gives directions in both English and Spanish on the playground and in the classroom. She reads stories in both languages.

The children’s development varies. Some pick up simple words or short sentences. Others nod or respond in English to questions asked in Spanish.

Jan Pentzler, who isn’t fluent in Spanish and is not of Hispanic descent, put her two boys in Christ’s program before they reached kindergarten.

The brothers can identify colors and household items in Spanish, even making out enough words from Spanish cartoons to understand some dialogue. Pentzler thinks the foundation is set for her children Zachary, 4, and Joshua, 6, to be proficient and pick up a few more languages in the future.

Tan Vinh can be reached at 206-515-5656 or

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