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Holland 's elementary schools focus on Spanish


Thursday, February 02, 2006

By Myron Kukla

The Grand rapids Press

HOLLAND —“Spanish spoken here” should be the sign hanging over the doorways of Holland focus schools these days.

Take a walk down any school hallway during classes and you likely will hear students in first through fifth grades discussing math, science and social studies lessons in Spanish.

The growing Spanish proficiency is the result of a new education program called Foreign Language in Elementary Schools, launched last fall by Holland Public Schools. More than 2,000 district students—including kindergartners—learn Spanish as part of their regular classes.

“It's really amazing to see how they are learning to speak and write Spanish almost painlessly,” said Assistant Superintendent Brian Davis, who was instrumental in bringing the FLES program to Holland schools.

While a formal assessment of the program's success is a few months off, FLES classroom teachers such as Ben Ashby, at Van Raalte focus school, are impressed with students' classroom work and grades.

“I have 360 students and 90 percent met or exceeded expectations in the first marking period. They were assessed on their ability to speak and write in Spanish,” said Ashby, who replaces regular classroom teachers for five class sessions every two weeks to give lessons in Spanish.

Ashby is one of six FLES teachers in the district—one for each focus school and the district's Early Childhood Education Center —to teach the subjects entirely in Spanish. Ashby has a K-12 degree for teaching Spanish from Calvin College .

“From the first day he walked into the classroom, Mr. Ashby spoke only in Spanish. It really grabbed their attention and interest,” Van Raalte Principal Dan Day said.

Day said he has studied some Spanish in college, but now finds he has to sit in on some of Ashby's classes to keep up with what students are learning.

“It's amazing to see the progress the students have made in just a little more than four months,” Day said.

During a recent class session, 28 fifth-graders at Van Raalte welcomed their teacher to class by saying, “Buenos tardes, Senior Ashby.” He greeted them, then questioned them in Spanish about what they are doing in class. They responded in Spanish.

Later, he led through several songs in Spanish that are designed to put names to everyday things.

There was no hesitation by the students. They all respond in fluent Spanish, singing the songs and correctly identifying the objects.

“I really like the class and learning another language,” Van Raalte fifth-grader Hope Webbert said. “I sometimes find myself thinking in Spanish and talking Spanish at home.”

Hope said she would like to continue taking some courses in Spanish next year, when she moves to middle school. Expansion of the program to the middle schools next year is on the school district's agenda.

While Hispanic students make up about 40 percent of the district's elementary school population, the instruction still is helpful to them.

“Spanish is my first language, but I'm still learning new things,” Van Raalte fifth-grader Daniel Flores said. “I learned the names of the months in Spanish and my nuimbers, which I didn't know before.”

Flores, who learned the majority of his English from watching cartoons on television, said he enjoys hearing Spanish spoken by his teacher and fellow students.

Ashby said it is easier for people to learn a foreign language at a young age.

And, Ashby said, “It will easier for them to learn a third and fourth language lat on.”

Davis said studies show learning a second language also improves the students' ability to learn in other areas.

The program cost the district about $40,000 for books and supplies, as well as the addition of one teacher. Holland schools also received federal grant money for innovative programs.

Since its inception, the program also has become a hit with parents. Claudia Sharlow is excited by the progress her son, Drew, a fourth-grader at Van Raalte, has made.

“It's amazing. He walks around the house and talks in Spanish, and names things in Spanish,” Scharlow said. “I think this is a great opportunity for my son and the other students.”

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