Hola, estudiantes: Portland kindergartners immersed in Spanish

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PORTLAND — Lyseth Elementary School is Maine’s first public school with a full-immersion program in Spanish. 

The School Department hired Susana Balasch, formerly of Pamplona, Spain, to teach the program. Most of her work in Spain was teaching English to Spanish-speaking students.

Balasch, who prior to arriving in August had never been to Maine or the United States, said the first few days were hard for the students in her kindergarten class.

“For them it is very difficult to understand the rules, to understand all habits in the classroom and all activities,” Balasch said. “They need a lot of images and sounds.”

Principal Lenore Williams said right now the students are being presented with material in both English and Spanish, probably at a 50-50 ratio, just so basic needs can be communicated. The regular curriculum will be taught in Spanish; music, art and physical education will be taught in English.

“You could well imagine if you tried to come at this where it’s total immersion from day one,” Williams said. “It’s pretty intimidating.”

She said the goal for this will be “true immersion,” where less and less English will be spoken. She also said they need to be realistic about the transition, since the program is dealing with kindergartners who all have English as their first language. She called the program “a leap of faith.”

“It’s very new, it’s in its infancy, but it’s it’s a great journey that we’re on,” Williams said.

Williams said there has been a lot of support for the program, and virtually no push-back, although she said faculty were a little apprehensive at first. She said she was most surprised by the reaction from parents.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm from the parents,” Williams said. “I think that was the biggest surprise … was how interested our parent community was in this offering.”

Williams also said they weren’t sure initially if they would meet typical classroom capacity, which was no more than 20 students. They currently have 19, and no students were denied access.

Williams said there was an informational session in May about the program for parents at the Auburn Street school. She said some parents signed up their children that night.

“We thought there’d be this kind of interest, but it’s been good to see,” Williams said. “There’s always a bit of a risk when you try something new.”

Because students are being taught to read in Spanish rather than English, Williams said parents must support the learning at home.

“The research shows there is (a gap) to start, but that in later years they usually surpass their peers, because it develops a lot of resiliency and flexibility in thinking to go between the two languages,” Williams said.

One grade will be added to the program each year as students go through the system and progress, with the ultimate goal of having one immersion program in each grade. The number of classes taught in English will increase over time to ensure students are proficient in both languages.

Balasch has 11 years of teaching experience in four different schools, and has worked in an elementary immersion program in Spain. She comes to Portland with her husband and two children. She was hired through Spain’s Visiting Teacher’s Program, and can teach in Portland for up to three years as part of the agreement between Spain and the state of Maine.

Williams said she hopes the immersion program will be adopted and continued by the middle and high schools so students leave the schools as bilingual graduates.

“To make you a well-rounded and global citizen, to have this opportunity, is really exciting,” Williams said. “Because that’s really what it’s going to take to make it be successful in the future, is that ability to communicate in a variety of ways.”

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

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Students in Susana Balasch’s kindergarten class at Lyseth Elementary School in Portland are taught a regular curriculum in Spanish, as part of the state’s first public school Spanish language immersion program.

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Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.