Making It

By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, July 29, 2007

In a colorful classroom in a Tenleytown church, five 2- and 3-year-olds are clustered around teacher Raúl Echevarría, who is wearing a straw hat and pointing to some plastic fruits and vegetables. What color is an apple? he asks. "Red!" the children say. Pretty typical preschool fare -- except these English-speaking kids are listening to and responding in Spanish.

Three-year-old Elise O'Callaghan is one of the pint-size pupils. "They're like sponges at this age," says her mother, BBC reporter Sarah Toms.

The class is taking place at Communikids, a language-immersion school for ages 1 to 8 founded by Raúl, 39, along with Jeannine Piacenza, 46, and Mariana Tarre, 35. The three were stay-at-home parents and onetime language teachers from Montgomery County and Northwest Washington who met at a play group for 2-year-olds. Raúl and Jeannine had taught ESL in this area; Mariana had taught English in her native Venezuela. They all wanted their children to speak Spanish as they did, and they lamented the lack of language training for the very young, whose minds are more malleable and better able to pick up the nuances of language, including accents. "It's like starting a 400-meter race an hour before anyone else comes to the stadium," Raúl, who is from Puerto Rico, puts it.

They decided to start such a school themselves.

Communikids opened in 2005 with Spanish classes for 20 children. Now it has 200 students in 30 classes, and has added French, Chinese, Arabic and Italian. Each 10-week course is about $300. The partners plan to open a second location in Falls Church this fall, and a third, in Ashburn, in January. Their goal is five locations in five years; they're even considering franchising.

Much of the impetus for the school's growth has come from the clientele, as parents realize the cognitive, educational and economic advantages of knowing a second language and the benefits of learning early. A group of women married to Italians requested the Italian classes. "They go out and find the kids, and I find the teacher," says Jeannine, who seeks out native speakers who have worked with children. "You cannot put a university professor in a class of 2-year-olds."

The three founders are co-directors. Jeannine, who is not a native Spanish speaker, handles contact with the public, registration and planning. In addition to teaching, Raúl designs the curriculum. Mariana teaches and is responsible for educational materials. All three interview and hire teachers; Raúl and Mariana train them.

The school should have revenue in the six digits this year, with a five-figure profit. So far, most of the profit has gone into expansion. The partners didn't start paying themselves a small salary until this past spring, and their spouses, they joke, won't be quitting their jobs anytime soon.

The founders had different careers at one time: Jeannine had been a securities trader; Raúl and Mariana had been lawyers. But language teaching has become their passion and Communikids the fulfillment of a dream. "This is the best teaching gig there is," says Mariana. "We get to use all of our training and all of our expertise in an incredibly creative way."

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