At Holy Rosary School in Tacoma, kindergartners learn, play and pray in two languages.
During morning circle time, students recite the days of the week and count off each date on the calendar. Hands over hearts, they pledge allegiance to the flag. And – at this Catholic school – they kneel in prayer to start their day.
On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, they do it all in Spanish. Tuesdays and Thursdays, the same routine happens in English.
And that’s just the start for these 26 kids, who are part of the school’s new two-way language immersion program called Academia Juan Diego. It’s named for a 16th-century indigenous Mexican saint who is revered for his vision of the Virgin Mary, known as Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The Academia launched this fall for preschool and kindergarten students. But Holy Rosary Principal Tim Uhl said the goal is to grow the program a year at a time so that by 2020, students in the entire school, through grade eight, will be receiving the same kind of language instruction.
“We wanted to serve Hispanic students, and we wanted to increase our ministry and reach out to Hispanic Catholics,” Uhl said. “This is the future of the church.”
Katey Briere, a Holy Rosary graduate who is now the school’s development director, is also the parent of two students. Both are native English speakers.
Her son is in the preschool Academia. Her first-grade daughter, while not in the language immersion program, also receives some Spanish instruction.
“PBS has a Spanish-language channel,” Briere said. “My kids watch cartoons in Spanish. They’re following it. They’re learning a skill. Being bilingual is a skill.”
Uhl said that while the majority of American Hispanics are Catholic, their children make up only a small percentage of enrollment in American Catholic schools. In Pierce County, he estimates it’s about 10 percent. But he believes the Academia can increase his school’s appeal among Spanish-speaking families.
The strategy seems to be working. This year, Holy Rosary more than doubled its enrollment of Hispanic kids, from 22 to 48. Academia Juan Diego is one of 12 Catholic schools in the nation chosen to take part in a network of Catholic educators focused on bilingual instruction.
There are 157 students in the entire school, located on the edge of downtown Tacoma.
Holy Rosary School and its landmark church, with its steeple visible from Interstate 5, have deep roots in Tacoma. The parish was established in 1891 by German-speaking Catholics. The current school building dates from 1911.
Uhl said the parish is not heavily Hispanic. But Holy Rosary’s pastor, the Rev. Jacob Maurer, is bilingual, and when he offers a Spanish-language Mass for students, they can follow along with prayer cards printed in both English and Spanish.
Tuition at Holy Rosary is $4,500 this year. Some assistance is available for families who can’t afford to pay, Uhl said.
Academia students include both native English speakers and those whose first language is Spanish.
All students are taught math in English. Lessons on social studies and simple science are delivered in Spanish.
Students separate according to their native language for some of their language arts instruction. But they learn together during most of the day.
In one 40-minute block, they work in small groups. On English-language days, teachers give directions in English, but some of the work is done in Spanish. On Spanish-dominant days, the situation is reversed.
Instruction in religion happens in both languages, depending on the day. On a recent Wednesday, teacher Amparo Farias told her kindergartners the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Spanish. It was Dec. 12, the day in the Catholic calendar set aside to honor the Lady.
Both Farias, the school’s lead kindergarten teacher, and Malena Swarthout, an assistant teacher, are bilingual. Both grew up speaking Spanish as a first language.
Farias, born in the border town of Laredo, Texas, spoke Spanish at home and English at school. Early in her teaching career in Texas, she worked in traditional bilingual programs. She said the emphasis in the early days was on getting Spanish speakers to be proficient in English. Often, she said, they would forget Spanish as they grew older.
Swarthout was born in Guadalajara, grew up in Mexico, and began learning English at school at age 4.
“I see the value of learning a second language when you are young,” she said. “I’m a product of bilingual immersion.”
Farias said both teachers are always looking for new ways to reach students – everything from music to props that can help them act out a word or concept.
“I search for materials to adapt,” Farias said. “I go to the library a lot.”
She also searches the Internet for forums where dual-language teachers exchange ideas.
“You have to find creative ways,” she said. She sometimes records a song in Spanish on her home answering machine, then assigns kids and parents to call up and listen for homework.
One frequently asked question concerns the wisdom of instructing children in two languages. Doesn’t that confuse kids?
Farias said research has shown that developing a second language is easier for younger children, whose brains are primed to soak up language cues.
“They’re not embarrassed to make mistakes,” she said.
The ability is there, she believes. “You just have to tap into it.”
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635