Two children in Evelyn Fernandez’s first-grade class hadn’t quite gotten the message that only Spanish is to be spoken in her classroom.
“You see? This is a silla,” 7-year-old Neil Ryan explained to a classmate while pointing to a picture of a chair he held in his lap.
Such occasional lapses notwithstanding, the children in the language immersion program at Key Elementary School in Arlington County generally stuck to the rules: They listened attentively as Fernandez read from a Spanish story book. The children responded to her inquiries about the story in Spanish, and in Spanish, they posed their own, at times creatively mangled, formulations.
This, in a language many of them could not speak six months ago.
The class of 23 comprises the youngest of 80 students in the school’s bilingual immersion program. Signs and posters displayed around Fernandez’s classroom identifying colors, shapes and objects in Spanish, are flipped over at midday to reveal English translations. Then, an English-only rule goes into effect for the rest of the day.
Immersion is a sink-or-swim approach to learning, which many experts say enables students to develop greater foreign language fluency than could be attained in a traditional classroom setting.
Until last fall, Arlington’s was the only language immersion program in Virginia; recently Fairfax County implemented a program in eight of its schools, offering Spanish, French, and Japanese, modeled in part after the Key school program.
What is unusual about the Key school program, however, is that half the students in each class are native speakers of Spanish and half are native speakers of English. For part of every school day, each group is immersed in the other’s language.
“If you ask a student something and he does not understand it in Spanish, there are other students in there who can support the response,” said Key school Principal Paul Wireman. “In this school, both the students and the teachers are role models.”
In the four years since they began learning a foreign language, the school’s first immersion students, now 9- and 10-year-olds, have become by and large bilingual.
Mornings, under Mildred Cruz-Fridman’s tutelage, the fourth-graders in the program negotiate their way effortlessly around the trilling R’s and stacatto rhythms that are the downfall of many an adult student of Spanish.
“When I started Spanish in first grade, it felt difficult,” said 9-year-old Narine Nazarian. “I wanted to talk with other people, but I couldn’t because I didn’t know how. Now that I’m in the fourth grade, it’s really, really fun.”
Ten-year-old Tatiana Valtenegro said she likes that fact that in addition to learning English, half of her day is spent reinforcing her native Spanish language skills, “especially my reading and writing.”
“Not only do my children have wonderful accents,” Cruz-Fridman said, “but being in the program makes them feel special. It’s given them an enhanced sense of self-esteem.”
Students wishing to participate in the program must be reading at or above grade level, and their parents must demonstrate a willingness to monitor the progress of their child.
The bilingual immersion program has become a feather in the cap of the Arlington school system — so much so that at yesterday’s School Board meeting, Superintendent Arthur W. Gosling recommended that up to 20 students — primarily first-graders — from across Arlington be allowed to attend the school, creating a sort of magnet program.
The proposal is designed not only to broaden the availability of a unique educational opportunity, but to ensure the program’s continued viability, Gosling said.
With an ethnic composition that is 56 percent Hispanic, 26 percent white, 9 percent black and 9 percent Asian, Key has had problems maintaining the 50-50 ratio of Spanish to English speakers, which the program’s administrators say is critical to its success. Almost all of the students come from the immediate neighborhood.
Despite the kudos the program has received, some School Board members voiced reservations about providing additional funding to transport students from around the county to the school building at 2300 Key Blvd. in north Arlington.
“Right now, I am not willing to allocate additional transportation dollars” for the program, said School Board member Dorothy H. Stambaugh.
Stambaugh said children traveling to the school from greater distances might be able to use public transportation, because Arlington is a small county and the Key school is on a major road.
Otherwise, the program is considered to be cost-effective because it does not require additional teachers or the purchase of extra textbooks, according to Wireman.
Many of the Spanish-language teaching materials were written or translated by the teachers.
School Board members are slated to vote on the proposal, which includes the transportation issue as well as the proposal to double the number of first-graders in the program, at its April 5 meeting.
Despite the hesitation of some board members, administrators of the bilingual program express optimism that it will be expanded, largely based on the glowing praise it has received from many corners — not least of all from parents like Judy Buckholz.
“I feel that it’s worthwhile for Barry to speak another language,” said Buckholz, whose 8-year-old son is a third-grader in the program.
“He has no fear of the language, which is something kids sometimes develop when they get a little older.”
The most enthusiastic advocates of the program, however, seem to be the participants.
Nine-year-old Grace Chou finds Spanish a worthwhile addition to a repertoire of languages which includes Mandarin and Taiwanese.
“I have neighbors who only speak Spanish and my parents don’t,” she said, “so I have to translate for them.”
Her classmate, Bryn Keraus, also 9, said she may even be on the verge of reaping the first tangible rewards of bilingualism.
“If I do well,” she said, “my parents told me that we can go to Puerto Rico for a week this summer.”