In Theresa Castellano’s alphabet book, a picture of a whale illustrates the letter ‘B.’
‘What’s this called?’ she asked in Spanish, showing the illustration to her class of Walker Elementary School kindergartners on Wednesday morning.
‘Ballena,’ they recited after her, giving the Spanish word for whale.
With that word, the English-speaking pupils took one of their first steps toward fluency in a foreign language. Walker, a new Henderson school opened by the Clark County School District this week, is phasing in a Spanish immersion program that eventually will encompass all grade levels at the school. Walker, at 850 Scholar St., is the district’s first international school. Fifty percent of instruction will be delivered to students in Spanish, with teachers designing their lesson plans around global themes. ‘Our children are going to be bilingual and biliterate by third grade,’ Principal Alan Bowman said. ‘They’re going to be aware of different cultures and the connections between them. That’s why we’re an international school. We’re introducing them to global studies.’
This year, only kindergartners are in the immersion program, which will expand one grade each year for the next five years. The kindergarten program is full-day. This week, morning classes were taught in Spanish, and afternoon classes were taught in English. That schedule will be reversed next week, and the rotation will continue throughout the year.
‘It works beautifully,’ said Annette Smith, who coordinates Walker’s immersion program. ‘We’re teaching to mastery of each subject. Our students are assessed so we can measure their progress.’
Smith oversaw a Spanish immersion program at Wengert Elementary School before moving to Walker. The difference, she said, was that Wengert’s program wasn’t schoolwide. The program at Walker will be.
‘Spanish isn’t being taught as a foreign language here,’ Smith said.
Instead, Smith said it’s the vehicle that teachers use for math instruction one day and for science the next. The idea isn’t new or unique, Smith said. It’s the method European schools have used to teach students foreign languages for years.
‘There’s plenty of research in place that shows this works,’ Smith said. ‘Other countries do it. Why are Americans not able to speak a second language?’
Walker is a neighborhood school, and Bowman said parent reaction has been enthusiastic so far. The school has 133 students in kindergarten. Only one parent chose not to include a child in the immersion program. Those who opt out are given a zone variance to a different school, Bowman said. The school isn’t accepting zone variances into the school because Walker already is over its projected enrollment for this year. It was expected to open with about 540 students. By the third day of school, Bowman said that 700 students had registered.
Southeast Area Superintendent Edward Goldman, a strong proponent of the international school concept, said there are examples throughout the country showing that immersion is effective. Before opening Walker, Goldman and Bowman visited a school in Seattle where students are offered immersion in Spanish or Japanese.
‘If you’re going to introduce a child to foreign language study, this is the way to do it,’ Goldman said. ‘It’s the right way to teach them a foreign language. I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t want to do it.’