Toby Carpenter's parents don't speak Spanish, but they would like their daughter to learn. So the Long Beach 6-year-old will spend the first few years of her education learning how to read and write first in Spanish--then in English.
"Que hace su mama?" teacher Margaret Sanders asked her class at the beginning of a social studies discussion about families and working moms.
A little girl squatting on a rug understood that Sanders was asking what her mother does. So she quickly responded--but in English: "My mommy works at a school."
"Que hace?" Sanders asked.
"She's a teacher," the little girl answered.
"Ah! Como yo!" Sanders replied pointing to herself.
As they raised their hands and blurted out what their mothers do, Sanders drew stick people and various objects on a large paper pad, and used hand signs, to demonstrate what she was talking about. All the while, Sanders spoke only in Spanish. Some of the children answered in English, some in Spanish, some in both languages.
Sanders' pupils are in a pilot Spanish-immersion program the Long Beach Unified School District began this month at Patrick Henry Elementary School.
Of the 60 kindergarten and first-grade children whose parents volunteered them for the program, about 12 are bilingual, said Principal Janice McNab. The remainder are nearly evenly split between Spanish-speakers who know no English and English-speakers who know no Spanish, McNab said.
Sanders and her kindergarten counterpart across the hall teach their classes in Spanish--making up 90% of the children's school day. Another teacher conducts the remaining 10% of the class in English.
Once the children reach second and third grade, 80% of their class will be taught in Spanish and 20% in English. Between the fourth and sixth grades, half of their classes will be in Spanish and the other half in English. By then, the children should be truly bilingual, say supporters of the unique Spanish-immersion program.
"It's a double education," said parent Martha Carpenter. "(My daughter) gets to read and write in both languages, plus she gets that intercultural enrichment."
Although school started less than two weeks ago, Toby already is picking up words and short phrases, Carpenter said. The children in the class help each other, noted Carpenter, a psychotherapist.
"Que comiste en la tarde ayer?" Sanders asked while making motions of eating during a recent school session. "Cookies!" answered one boy. "Ah, galletas," Sanders translated.
When she directed the same question to another little boy, he looked perplexed. So one of the bilingual first-graders piped in and asked her classmate: "What did you eat yesterday afternoon?"
The bilingual children have a special role in the class because they can assist the two other sets of children, educators point out. Meanwhile, the Spanish-speakers also are developing a positive perception of themselves, their language and culture as they learn English.
"For the Spanish-speaking kids, it's, 'Wow, look, for a change, I'm the one in the know," Sanders said.
The English-speaking kids also develop greater self-esteem because they are learning something that others--sometimes even their own parents--don't know.
Parents interviewed said they want to give their children the opportunity to learn a second language early in life, not only because it will help them in the working world, but because it will give them a greater understanding and appreciation of other cultures. That's especially important in Southern California, which has a large Latino population, they said.
"That's the beauty of it," said Sylvia Padilla, whose daughter is in the kindergarten Spanish-immersion program. "They'll get to interact with Spanish-speakers and gain respect of other cultures. We live in a small world."
For Mexican-Americans such as Padilla, ensuring that their children will not only speak Spanish, but also read and write it fluently, is very important.
Anita Cordova and her husband, for example, had to take Spanish classes in college because their parents spoke only English to them. Knowing how much harder it is to learn another language as an adult, the Padillas searched from San Diego to Los Angeles for a bilingual program for their daughter.
"I was astounded how little was available," Cordova said.
About 30 school districts across the country offer immersion programs, and at least 10 of those are in California, according to educators. Most of the programs are in Spanish, although some are in other languages, including Arabic and Greek.
In San Diego County, three schools provide Spanish-immersion programs and one offers a French program. Some of the programs specifically seek English-speakers while others want a mix of both.