This fall, kindergarten students at Harrison Lyseth Elementary School in Portland are learning math, science and reading in Spanish, according to the city’s school department.
It’s the first Spanish immersion program in the state of Maine, meaning that instead of having a little time out of the week devoted to what’s a second language for the majority of Portland children, the teacher conducts the entire class and all its core subjects in Spanish.
(Music, art and physical education — often called “specials” in many school districts, in that they’re taught by specialists — will continue to be taught by English speakers.)
To launch this program — which will expand to two grades once this first group of kindergartners reaches first grade next year, and then three grades the year after and so on — Portland Public Schools recruited Susana Balasch, a teacher from Pamplona, Spain.
According to the district, Balasch is an 11-year veteran of teaching, having worked in an elementary immersion program in Spain and holding a master’s degree in teaching Spanish as a second language. A Portland news release explains that she uses “theater and other hands-on activities in her teaching.”
She was hired through Spain’s Visiting Teacher Program, set up between the foreign government and its Maine counterparts to allow teachers to work in the state for up to three years. Balasch is moving to Greater Portland with her husband and two young kids, the school department announced.
In what will be a unique reversal among public school programs in Maine, the use of English will be incrementally increased with the immersion program students over time to ensure that they don’t fall behind in the use of what will probably be the native language for most of them.
Importantly, the district also notes that more than 30 years’ worth of studies has consistently shown that students in immersion programs perform as well or better on verbal and mathematical tests — administered in English — than their counterparts not in immersion programs.
So the argument is that having the kids learn in Spanish pretty much all day should provide them near fluency in that second language without stopping them from performing well on all the standardized English-language-based tests so often used to determine whether schools are being successful.
Portland Public Schools Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk explains it this way:
‘We want our students to graduate proficient in a world language so that they are at a competitive advantage when they enter the workplace. This program will help make that happen. Students who master a second language benefit in other ways, too. They tend to be more flexible in their thinking and deft at solving problems.’
(Also, I say English “will probably be the native language for most of them” realizing that Portland schools are by far the most diverse in the state. The district boasts more than 1,800 students coming from homes speaking more than 60 different primary languages, a figure that represents about a quarter of all the students in the system. Spanish, Arabic, Somali, Vietnamese, Khmer and Acholi are each spoken by more than 50 students in the Portland schools.)
Here’s Lyseth Principal Lenore Williams:
‘Lyseth Elementary School is very excited to offer this groundbreaking program. All of our students will benefit from hearing Spanish spoken every day in various school settings.’