Everything inside the kindergarten room at Gary Elementary School in West Chicago looks like any other suburban class.
But Gary school children use a rojo crayon to draw the fire engine. Each school week begins on lunes. And the song the youngsters are bellowing involves a feisty gato. The difference: These children are learning both Spanish and English.
The class is part of a pilot dual language program in West Chicago’s Elementary District 33. In all, 29 students were selected to take part.
“It’s not hard at all,” claims Gary Koehring, a 6-year-old anxious to get back to chasing friends at recess. “We’re just learning a different language.”
Teacher Laura Mendoza said the goal is not to make it hard, nor is it to force-feed them Spanish words.
“We don’t want to force them,” she said. “It’s kindergarten. We don’t want them to hate school or Spanish, so I just repeat it if it’s necessary.”
Most of the children flaunt their new-found knowledge by accentuating the Spanish words in a sentence otherwise made up entirely of English words.
“They’re learning it and they’re putting it to use,” Mendoza said. “But at the kindergarten level it’s great that they know it’s Wednesday, I don’t care what language they say it in.”
Besides teaching English-speaking students Spanish, Hispanic youngsters learn and use English.
“I put Miguel in the class so he can know both languages at the same time,” said Araceli Camacho, who spoke English through an interpreter. “He learns his English better, and not forgetting Spanish.”
She said her 5-year-old son has been teaching her the alphabet in English.
The class was designed to be a split evenly between children who primarily spoke English and Spanish. But it worked out to more like 60-40, with a majority of Spanish-speaking students.
Koehring’s mother, Janet, said she wasn’t immediately sold on the idea that her English-speaking son should learn a second language at such a young age.
“At first I wasn’t interested at all, and I thought it would be hard for him,” she said. “But then I figured it couldn’t hurt to learn both languages because eventually it might be a plus.”
The school district also set up classes for parents to learn the language simultaneously. Many are taking the classes.
“I think it’s easier for him than me,” Janet Koehring said.
As part of the program, parents are encouraged to keep children together throughout their elementary education. From year to year emphasis on language becomes less and less. The younger the students, the more Spanish instruction they receive.
Although there is no binding agreement, all of Mendoza’s students should see the same faces next year in first grade. Another crop of youngsters will start a second class at the kindergarten level next year at Gary, but there are no plans to expand the program to other schools yet.
“We want to produce some real positive results before we expand,” said Karen Mulattieri, the district’s director of language assistance. “Only 31 applied this year, but we were expecting first-year people to be very cautious.”
Mendoza said some parents might have worried about the content of the dual language class and passed at the first opportunity.
“It’s not that much different,” Mendoza said. “The biggest difference is obviously the language, but what we’re trying to teach is the same.”