- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 21, 2015

CARBONDALE, Ill. (AP) - A few words of Spanish, and the kindergartners snapped to attention.

Only five minutes remained before the end of the day in Sara Diaz’s class at Parrish School in Carbondale, and after hours of learning, mental fatigue had started setting in among the students.

“Ojos a la maestra,” Diaz said in her native tongue - “Eyes on the teacher.”

At once, students abandoned conversations and coloring to look up, wide-eyed, at Diaz.

“They are tired at the end of the day because their brain is working so hard,” she said. “They feel good.”

Diaz’s class is part of a two-way immersion program through Carbondale Elementary School District 95 that exposes students in kindergarten through fifth grade to both Spanish and English instruction, in the hopes that bilingualism and multicultural experience will result in broad cognitive benefits for students.

At Parrish School, kindergartners and first graders in the two-way immersion program receive 90 percent of their instruction in Spanish and 10 percent in English. Thomas School second- and third-graders receive 80 percent Spanish instruction. For Lewis School fourth- and fifth-graders, that number falls to 50 percent.

In a district where about 10 percent of students speak English as a second language, Superintendent Mike Shimshak said the program helps develop students into “global citizens.”

More than half the program’s students are English-speakers, but nearly as many come from Spanish-speaking homes.

“My vision is bilingualism for all of our students,” he said. “I think that’s an important part of developing intercultural competency.”

The program started in 2006 and continues to expand. This year, demand for bilingual instruction exceeded expectations, so administrators opened up a second two-way immersion class for first-graders at Parrish.

Next year, Shimshak said he hopes to bring the program to a Pre-Kindergarten classroom and offer a Spanish elective for former two-way immersion students who have stepped up to Carbondale Middle School.

At Parrish School on Wednesday, Diaz taught a lesson about spring, or “la primavera” almost entirely in Spanish.

“En la primavera, calle la lluvia,” she said, holding up a laminated illustration of a rain cloud - “In spring, rain falls.”

“Sí, la lluvia,” students responded - “Yes, rain.”

Despite occasionally using Spanish to respond, most students reply to Diaz and interact with each other in English. At this young age, Diaz said, that’s typical.

“In Kindergarten, they come from zero,” she said. “It’s hard for them (at first).”

Eventually, students start mixing Spanish and English - a sign of progress.

“They can mix, and they’ll say, ‘I went to my abuela’s casa,’” she said.

More important than learning vocabulary, Diaz said students are learning strategies to decipher the new language on their own. Words that are similar in both languages - information and “información,” for example - become answer keys for understanding other words.

Administrators hope those learning strategies will benefit students when they phase out of the program later on. Parrish Principal Shadin Belal said students might be slightly behind their monolingual counterparts in some subjects at that point - but not for long.

“The whole goal of learning a second or third language is to build those cognitive and learning skills,” said Belal, who is bilingual herself. “Once they get to the fourth and fifth grade, . they catch up very, very easily.”

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Source: The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan, https://bit.ly/1OEAppz

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Information from: Southern Illinoisan, https://www.southernillinoisan.com

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