By Trevor Kapp
Carrboro Commons Staff Writer
Editor’s Note: In an earlier version of this story, Special Education Teacher Holly Duncan and Reading Teacher Maria Arbiol (pictured below) were not correctly identified in the captions. The Commons apologizes and regrets the error.
Lupita Cortes speaks fluent Spanish with a nearly perfect accent, which is particularly audible when she pronounces words like “correr,” “nosotros” and “hora.”
Cortes has, after all, grown up in a Spanish-only-speaking household with Mexican parents who have put great emphasis on accent and elocution.
“We correct her if she pronounces a word badly,” said Edith Cortes, Lupita’s mother.
But when the 5-year-old is asked to read the language and write basic sentences, she struggles at times.
Cortes is one of 48 kindergarteners—divided into two sections—enrolled in the dual language program at Carrboro Elementary School, which for nine years has been teaching students as young as preschoolers basic Spanish skills with the hope that they can become proficient in speaking and writing early in life.
“It’s important because around the world, the majority of people don’t just speak one language,” said Alexandra Romero, Cortes’ Spanish teacher, who is in her third year at the school. “The average person speaks more than two languages, so here we teach them two languages. The ones who know Spanish learn English, and the ones who know English learn Spanish.”
Cortes’ day begins with English instruction in the morning, which consists of basic reading and writing exercises designed to improve her comfort level with the language. At noon, she and her classmates break for lunch and then take about 20 minutes to practice a dance routine to be performed in front of parents in the coming weeks.
Around 1 p.m., they walk to Romero’s classroom to begin Spanish lessons for the afternoon.
“We do everything,” Romero said. “We dance, we read books. They’re looking at listening exercises and letter exercises, some words that are used frequently, and we practice writing them.”
Romero added that the class has also done a geography and culture section, in which it looked at several Spanish-speaking countries and their customs and daily routines.
On this particular day, though, the students were divided into four groups and practiced various activities ranging from letter exercises with blocks to playing games on iPod touches.
“Everything we do is fun,” Cortes said. “I’m learning how to write. I know how to speak, but I don’t know how to write.”
“I like the computers,” another student said, referring to the iPod touches. “I’m with my friends, and I like doing the exercises.”
“The kids are much better at Spanish than I am,” joked Cassandra McCandless, a Chapel Hill native and UNC-CH freshman who recently began volunteer in Romero’s class.
“They’re already practically fluent in both languages.”
With up to four instructors in the classroom at a particular time, students are able to take full advantage of the available resources and hone a variety of linguistic skills at the different stations.
But the success of Carrboro Elementary’s dual language program has not come without some adversity.
“We have difficulty finding material that’s in Spanish,” Romero said. “It’s a little complicated in terms of money and because (the material) doesn’t exist. There’re a lot of activities and materials in English, but not in Spanish.”
In addition, the program has become so popular that the school has had to institute a lottery at the beginning of the year to determine which students will receive dual language instruction and which will be traditionally schooled.
“We’re overfilled,” says Mayra Menjivar, who is in her fourth year as a teaching assistant at Carrboro Elementary. “If someone withdraws, the next day someone else enrolls.”
Because of the lack of space, Menjivar said, the school is going to decide in the coming weeks whether to make its entire curriculum dual language.
Menjivar said she believed some parents were opposed to the idea because of the heavy burden and rigorous workload a second language would put on their children. But she added that the benefits were far too widespread to ignore.
“Culture is evolving,” she said. “To succeed in the future, they’ll need it. In jobs, they want people who speak both, and if you can’t compete, you won’t go far.”
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