Kindergarten teacher Mariluz Mendez flipped over several flashcards and waited for her students to identify the images.
When she raised the picture of a shower, the students yelled “ducha” in unison.
When she revealed an image of a dolphin, they hesitated. Then, they said “delfín.”
And when she raised the flashcard with a stack of money on it, they quickly shouted “dinero.”
“Muy bien,” Mendez said.
The reading exercise is part of a growing effort in Prince George’s County to immerse young students in a foreign language. In Room 2 at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Hyattsville, the students are less than halfway through the school year, and some of the kindergartners, who had never spoken a foreign language before entering Mendez’s class, are now reading books in Spanish.
“They are like sponges,” said Evylyn Quiñones, the school’s teacher in charge and testing coordinator. “They grab everything at this age.”
Cesar Chavez is one of three schools in Prince George’s that formally started offering Spanish immersion as part of an expansion of educational options for children this year. Each of the elementary schools — Cesar Chavez, Overlook in Temple Hills and Phyllis E. Williams in Upper Marlboro — has three or four kindergarten classes and is scheduled to add the program in subsequent grades each school year. Students apply through a lottery system.
The district also offers Chinese immersion at Paint Branch Elementary School in College Park and French immersion at Robert Goddard French Immersion School in Lanham and John Hanson French Immersion in Temple Hills.
Marty Abbott, executive director of the American Council on Teaching of Foreign Languages, said the number of school districts that use a foreign-language immersion model rises annually. Spanish is the most popular foreign language taught in U.S. schools, while Chinese is seeing a significant increase, and strong interest remains for French, Abbott said.
Hoping to become more competitive in a global economy, Abbott said Utah and Delaware have made foreign-language immersion a priority. Each state’s goal is to build a workforce that can collaborate with multi-national companies, she said.
It is one of the reasons why Gina Bowler and her friend Delores Millhouse, two parents who didn’t have children in the public school system a year ago, lobbied for Schools Chief Kevin M. Maxwell to add Spanish immersion to the district’s list of offerings.
Bowler said she wants to give her daughters all the advantages available to others. Prior to being accepted into Overlook’s program, Bowler’s daughter, Francesca Svizzero, attended a Spanish immersion preschool and weekend classes on Saturdays.
She said that she wants her daughters to not only become fluent in Spanish but also a third language. Bowler said she believes fluency in multiple languages will give them “many advantages in their academic lives, their professional lives and their personal lives. . . . Many people around the world are developing those skills, and I want my children to have those same benefits and advantages.”
At the Hyattsville school, kindergarten students are in a dual-language immersion program, during which they spend half of their day learning lessons in Spanish and the rest of the day learning lessons in English, Quiñones said.
Principal Jose Taboada said the classes are almost evenly mixed with students who are native Spanish speakers and non-native Spanish speakers. He said Spanish-speaking parents are drawn to the immersion school because they want their children to be literate in their native language.
“They don’t want them to lose the ability to speak the language,” Taboada said. “You’d be surprised. Many, many children lose their language.”
Taboada said he knows that from personal experience. His three daughters would read and write Spanish but rarely spoke the language, especially in school. They worried about being stigmatized, he said.
As Mendez wrapped up the hour-long vocabulary lesson, she yelled: “¿Quien esta listo para aprender?” (Who is ready to learn?)
The students responded: “¡Yo estoy listo para aprender!” (I am ready to learn!)
Mendez then moved on to a math lesson.
The whiteboard at the front of the room turned into a grid with the numbers 1 to 100 in each square.
Mendez grabbed her ruler and pointed to each number as the students counted in Spanish, almost as if they were singing a song.
The intensity grew louder the closer the students got to “cien,” Spanish for 100.
“¡Muy bien!” Mendez said as she nodded her head in affirmation.