School’s out, Spanish is in

TEAM 21 group leader Jocelyn Medina gives the afternoon agenda to students in her after-school program, speaking exclusively in Spanish

Jocelyn Medina has been a group leader for the TEAM 21 after-school program at the district’s Early Childhood Center for three years.

Since the beginning of February, her job looks the same as it always has – leading games in the gym, passing out snacks and nurturing young students after dismissal. But it sounds different; Medina, who is bilingual, is leading a group of about 17 first- and second-graders exclusively in Spanish.

“It’s been fun,” she said. “It is a little difficult sometimes, because they’re all at different levels in their Spanish. Some are very fluent and have no problem whatsoever; they can have conversations for days. Some of them can’t, and they get frustrated.”

Jocelyn Medina helps first-grader Karla Farias-Gutierrez, one of around a dozen students who attended TEAM 21’s Spanish-speaking program last week, after dismissal at the Early Childhood Center

Immersed and Improving

The effort is part of a new program the district has implemented to improve Spanish for “heritage learners:” those students who have been exposed from an early age to Spanish at home and who can understand and speak it to varying degrees.

Carol Lautenbach is assistant superintendent of teaching and learning design for Godfrey-Lee Public Schools. She said that the idea for the program came from research the district did on dual immersion language programs. A district team studied and supported the idea of dual immersion in the classroom, she said, but didn’t think it was sustainable given the number of bilingual teachers available.

With a grant from the Steelcase Foundation and robust support from TEAM 21 leadership, the Spanish-language after-school program was born. Medina and teacher Katie Van Haven helped design the program with Lautenbach. The district held an informational meeting for Spanish-speaking parents of children who attend TEAM 21 after school, and parents of 17 students opted in.

First-grader Edwin Chavez is one of those students.

“I know more English than Spanish,” he said. “I need to learn some knowledge about Spanish because I’m not really used to it. Numbers like 75… I’m not used to saying those things in Spanish.”

Edwin said using Spanish at TEAM 21 already has helped him understand and speak more Spanish at home.

Arielly Sanchez is excited to improve her Spanish skills, and hopes it will help her communicate with friends and family who speak Spanish

Second-grader Arielly Sanchez, who says she is “in the middle” in terms of her Spanish proficiency, agreed.

“I think it’s kind of good, so I can learn more Spanish for when I go to Mexico,” she said.

Measuring Success

Lautenbach said other desired outcomes of the program are the same as those of the English-language TEAM 21: improved math and reading skills and exposure to new experiences.

To gauge whether the program is working, participants’ Spanish language skills are being measured using Spanish MAP testing and Imagine Learning Espanol.

“It should be a very interesting way to see if instructing and enriching in Spanish leads to growth in all of the 6Cs of our learner profile,” said Lautenbach, referring to an educational approach adopted by the district that emphasizes collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creative innovation, confidence and content.

Edwin Chavez says that TEAM 21’s Spanish-only after-school program has improved his understanding of the Spanish he hears at home

Medina, who grew up in a bilingual household and graduated from Lee High School, said she has definitely seen improvement from the first few days of the program, when she noticed some confusion and frustration from certain students.

“Most of them still can’t speak it fluently, but they understand it,” she said. “At the end of the day, I know that they’re learning more and they’re comprehending more, so it’s been exciting to see that growth.”

Brittani Stickler, TEAM 21 site coordinator at the school, said many parents have expressed appreciation for the option. Stickler said she knew of parents who had planned to send their children to visit with family in Mexico to improve their Spanish, and now they may not have to do that.

“They’re hopeful,” Stickler said. “We only started at the beginning of February for this particular program, but we’ll be watching the data to see how everyone does.”

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Bridie Bereza
Bridie Bereza hails from Lansing and has worked in the Grand Rapids area as a reporter, freelance writer, and communicator since graduating from Aquinas College in 2003. She feels privileged to cover West Michigan's public schools and hopes to shed a little light on the amazing things happening there through her reporting. Read Bridie's full bio or email Bridie.

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