The seven little girls ran to the teacher at Rolling Terrace Elementary School in Takoma Park. One, her words tumbling out in a barely coherent rush, said, "The big boy - the big boy with the brown hair." Agitated, she switched to her native tongue. "Nino grande," she said.
Felice Delgado, the teacher, listened, then spoke a few quiet words of Spanish. As the girl calmed, the story came out. A big boy with brown hair was frightening the girls in the school yard.
It was a small crisis, perhaps, but it loomed large in the world of an 8-year-old and the presence of a teacher who could understand her native language helped. The interplay in languages is an everyday event at Rolling Terrace where the students come from all over the world and speak a total of 25 languages.
The kindergarten through fourth grade school is comprised of 328 students. About 20 per cent of them are Spanish-speaking, about 10 per cent are Asian and a few children are from Africa and Europe.
In some schools, the presence of large numbers of foreign students who have to be taught English before they can go on to other subjects would be a serious problem for teachers. But Rolling Terrace is structured to preserve the culture and language of the Latino minority while exposing other children to a new language and culture.
More than 75 per cent of the students, including kindergarteners, take one class a day in Spanish and Spanish culture. At the same time, in another classroom, non-English speaking pupils are taught English. When these children learn English, they are allowed to transfer into the Spanish program.
The program will become available to children througout the Takoma Park cluster when its voluntary desegregation plan, which will offer different courses and ways of teaching, goes into effect next school year.
"It's a real expression of how we can get along together. It's really a beautiful, beautiful place to be because the children are so accepting of each other," said teacher Alvina Pawlik, a Mexican-American.
Over the last decade, the tree-shaded surroundings of Rolling Terrace have become home for many persons from foreign countries, says Mary Maiers, who has been principal there for 11 years. Some were attracted by the relatively low rents of the area and the suburban atmosphere, which reminded them of their native towns. Others are students, many of whom attend nearby Columbia Union College.
When Maiers first came to the school there were about six Spanish-speaking pupils. All of them were bilingual. Then more children unable to speak English came until their numbers comprised one-third of the school's population.
Felice Delgado, an American who had spent most of her life in Cuba, was recruited to teach English to the Spanish-speaking children. But the parents wanted more. Fearing that their children would forget their native language and culture, they requested a program that would teach their children to read and write in Spanish.
The program began as an after-school activity for children of Hispanic background and was taught by parents who volunteered. At the request of American parents, however, in 1972 it was made a regular part of the school day for grades one through four, at a time when most language instruction in Montgomery County begain in the ninth grade. Recently the program was extended to kindergarteners, also at the parents' request.
The Spanish culture classes are not graded and are voluntary. Maiers said that only about seven students elected not to take the program this year.
Spanish language and culture are taught through games, role playing and songs, along with books about Spain and Mexico.
In a recent kindergarten class, about 10 children sat in a semi-circle around teacher Patricia Blum. "Como se llama?" (What is your name?) they sang, answering the question in turn. Then the children did a circle game in which they counted in Spanish as children moved in and out of the circle. The class included a gypsy and two Korean children, Maiers said.
Down the hall, fourth graders took a class from Mercedes DiLima, a native of Cuba. With a map that gave the Spanish names of countries behind her, DiLima told the students about Spain.
One of the most warming aspects of the program, teachers say, is the reaction of some Hispanic parents. They are delighted when their children are able to write letters in Spanish to their grandparents in Latin America and when the children begin to read Spanish.
Maria Gamarra, a native of Bolivia who has two children at Rolling Terrace, said that when her children entered the school, she was afraid they would be discriminated against because they did not speak English. But her fears were allayed by the school's program and the teachers' attitudes.
"I feel free to talk to anyone at the school," she said, adding that Delgado, who taught the children English, is "like part of my family.
"I think since we have this kind of cultural program in school, the students know there are people who are different from them," Gamarra said. "My children are not outsiders at all in school."
Mary Ann Ryan, whose son Gerard, 8, has been in the bicultural program three years, said the program has helped him communicate with Spanish-speaking children in their neighborhood.
"I'm very happy they are using their unique situation to teach the children," she said. "It's not every school that understands its diversity and takes advantage of it."