Lyseth Elementary School second-grade Spanish immersion teacher Eugenia Fernandez (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)
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Lyseth Elementary School was named the elementary school of the year by the Spanish Embassy’s Ministry of Education for its Spanish immersion program, the only one of its kind in Maine. 

The award comes as the Portland Public Schools weighed whether to eliminate elementary Spanish language instruction from the fiscal year 2021 budget while maintaining the Lyseth immersion program – a choice that raised questions about whether that strategy meets the School Department’s goals of equity among schools and shrinking the achievement gap for disadvantaged students. 

In a March 12 Finance Committee meeting, Superintendent Xavier Botana said he made the decision to keep the Spanish immersion program, which he estimated costs the district $60,000 per year for one extra classroom. He said he does believe the question should be discussed by the School Board, because the makeup of the board and focus of the district has changed since the program was initiated.  

“From my perspective, the families that made a commitment to that program, we owe them to be able to bring their children through the program,” Botana said.

The immersion program began with its first kindergarten class in 2014, and was spearheaded by Grace Valenzuela, now executive director of communications and community partnerships for the schools, and former Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk, with the support of Lyseth principal Lenore Williams.

Aven Streeter, left, performs a traditional Mexican dance with her third-grade classmates in the Spanish immersion program last year. (Courtesy Kelly Streeter)

Each year a new class was added as the initial cohort progressed through elementary grades, and a new kindergarten class was admitted. Now, with the first cohort set to enter sixth grade, the program is fully developed and was eligible to apply for the Embassy of Spain award. 

Lyseth competed with 30 other schools for two awards, one for elementary schools and one for middle schools. An award ceremony was planned for this month in Washington, D.C., but was postponed because of COVID-19. The award includes a grant for books. 

Most of the teachers come from Spain on a cultural exchange visa coordinated by the Spanish Embassy’s Ministry of Education. Others have come from Mexico and the Dominican Republic. 

Eugenia Fernandez, the second-grade immersion teacher, is from Spain. Before taking the position at Lyseth she taught at a dual-immersion program in Utah that was taught half in English. 

“I was really surprised, positively surprised, when I arrived here because I started speaking to the kids normally and they understand every single word I say,” Fernandez said. “I remember that when I was in Utah, I had to speak slowly, using body language many times. But here, I didn’t have to do this at all. So I started speaking very, very fast and the kids just follow me the whole time.”  

The program at Lyseth starts out 90 percent in Spanish, with lunch, recess, and specials making up the other 10 percent in English. By fifth grade the classes are taught closer to a 50-50 split between the two languages. 

Challenging transition

Florencia Sobral, the third-grade teacher in the program, said the transition in kindergarten is challenging. 

“For most of the students it’s their first school experience (and) they have no idea what is happening and then they’re doing it in a completely different language,” Sobral said, noting that the experience triggers a “fight-or-flight” response in the children, activating different parts of the brain.

“There’s a lot of research behind it and why it is so good for them,” she said. “… I’ve seen some amazing kindergarten teachers that have them reading in Spanish by December.”

This year’s kindergarten teacher is Claudia Mejia, who is from Mexico. She said that to reduce anxiety, she gives students basic commands in Spanish. But when it comes to any problem that involves social-emotional aspects, she explains herself in English. 

Mike Bove, who has a third-grader, Ben, in the program, said he was nervous about the concept at first. But he sat in on a lesson in the first-grade classroom toward the end of the year and the students were speaking back and forth with the teacher in Spanish, and then they were talking to each other in Spanish.

He said seeing the interaction convinced him to enroll his son and trust the program through the bumpy spots in the first few months of kindergarten. 

“I can remember one day where we were walking him to school and (Ben) was just like, ‘No, I’m not going’,” Bove said. “The bell rang and (Ben said) ‘I’m not going in there’ .. and he just started walking home through the fields.”

Bove said this hadn’t ever happened before with his older son, who is not in the program, and it was very unlike Ben. Eventually they talked Ben into going to school that day. 

Now Bove said Ben likes the program and actually helps his older brother, Cohen, with his Spanish homework. Cohen has been taking regular Spanish instruction classes at school since fourth grade and is now in seventh grade at Lynam Moore. Bove said Cohen is now at the level in Spanish that Ben achieved at the end of kindergarten. 

Matthew Winch, whose daughter Audrey started with the first kindergarten class and is now in fifth grade, said the first year was challenging.

“Your child comes home every day glassy-eyed and somewhat stone-faced,” Winch said, but that passed and by first grade she was helping her older brother with his fourth-grade Spanish homework. 

Using music, culture

In kindergarten and throughout the program, music plays an integral role in helping children learn the language.

Fernandez, the second grade teacher, said it is easy for students to learn language through songs, especially songs with associated movements, such as “Soy Una Taza” about things you find in the kitchen. She said she finds a Spanish song to go with any new topic she introduces.

Learning is also often centered around projects that integrate Spanish culture.

Fernandez was working on a book focusing on 12 different aspects of Spanish culture, one for each month, with her second-grade class, but that was curtailed by the transition to remote learning.

A fourth- and fifth-grade teacher, Maria Ladero-Sanchez who is from Madrid, said she had her students make replicas of art in classical and modern Spanish museums along with learning about the artists and the time periods. Her students also performed a play about a Spanish fairy tale.

What Sobral called “a moment of truth” arrived when the first group of students reached third grade, which is when state and district assessments begin and there was concern around how they were going to do testing in English.

But the students did very well. Sobral said the Spanish immersion cohort scores higher than other students, both in state assessments and district assessments, for reading, writing and math.  

“The most impressive part to me was that their reading skills were pretty high regardless of the fact that they were not learning English,” she said. “While we grow their literacy skills in Spanish, their literacy skills in English are growing as well.” 

Bove said his son, Ben, is now reading above his age level in English.

“They told us that that would happen and the data bears that out, that students in an immersion program will at some point hit a jump in their native language … and we’ve definitely noticed that this year,” he said.

Kelly Streeter, who has a son and a daughter in the program, said it has made her children more independent learners and improved their logical thinking and problem-solving skills. If they don’t understand every word the teacher is saying, she said, they have to look for other clues to figure out what is needed to answer a question. 

Success breeds interest

The success of the students already in it is also driving interest in the program.

Winch, who served on a parent advisory board for the program, said that in its first year there was not enough interest to fill the classroom from just the Lyseth neighborhood, so it was opened up citywide and beyond. In subsequent years, people outside of the neighborhood were chosen by lottery to fill the remaining slots in the program after Lyseth students were placed.

Now, there is enough demand that a lottery is used to pick Lyseth students, and increasing access to the program is on the minds of some teachers and administrators. 

Ladero-Sanchez said one thing she would like to see happen is to open it up to English language learners, who may have entered the schools after their kindergarten year. She said some believe those students should be focusing on English, and that learning Spanish could make that more difficult. 

“I understand, but I don’t completely agree,” Ladero-Sanchez said. “Some of them speak three or four languages because they have been traveling. Some of them are from Angola, then they live in Congo and they learn French, then they move to Brazil, so I don’t think that this is going to make them not learn English. They are amazing kids and can learn many, many things.”

At the March 12 finance committee meeting, Botana said “having it be a dual-immersion experience with students who are French speakers, or Portugese, or even Spanish … would be much more consistent with what we’re trying do as a district than what we currently have.”  

But, he continued, “What we currently have has been incredibly successful. We’ve done a tremendous job. We know that that can work, and if we were to do it differently, it is a viable model.” 

Parents and teachers also question the board’s decision to cut funding for elementary Spanish, which currently serves about 1,000 students in fourth and fifth grades.

Sobral said having Spanish classes at the elementary level is beneficial to English language learners because it puts everyone on a level playing field and gives those students a chance to succeed. 

Mejia said she lived for a time in Southeast Asia, where people speak three or four languages. 

“I feel that our country here in America is not avant-garde and not looking forward to what’s going to happen later if you are only speaking one language,” she said.

Bove said it bothers him that in our culture, arts, humanities, and languages are usually the first to be cut, but he understands how challenging budget decisions can be. 

He said he hopes the Spanish immersion program remains. 

“Ben is 8 and he’s fluent in Spanish,” Bove said. “I can only imagine good things for him going forward. It’s a skill that he’ll use forever.”