English-language learners represent nearly one in 10 public school students nationwide. There is no question that ELL programs can strain limited school resources, but these children do learn English. And as early language learners, they also enjoy a wide range of cognitive benefits. Benefits that I wanted my own children to take advantage of because they do not live in a Spanish-speaking household.
So each morning, I cross the “border” into a foreign country to take my daughter to kindergarten. At least, that’s how I describe it. Passing by a vendor’s colorful cart of Mexican pastries, I say hola to the other mothers and make it to the classroom in time for a quick buenos días to the teacher. Elsa drops her homework into the basket. This week, it’s the letter “d,” so she has colored in a dinosaurio and dedo. I kiss her goodbye, and she joins the circle on the carpet to sing, “Hola, amigos ... “ No English is used in the classroom, even for teaching academic subjects.
My daughter doesn’t attend a fancy international school or even an immersion program in a diverse metropolis. And we don’t live in a border state. We live in Wisconsin. I take my daughter across town to the Spanish barrio, where Spanish is the first language, and many of the elementary schools make it their mission to preserve the language and culture of the community. The same goes for the area’s day-care centers, although none touts itself as bilingual. Spanish and English are simply the languages of the families they serve.
This education strategy is not for the faint of heart. We have a freeway commute to school, test scores are abysmal compared with those of our neighborhood public school, and we aren’t part of the community by any cultural or socioeconomic definition. But the 5-year-old kids are still clean slates, and the teacher is part sage, part saint. Now that my daughter is bilingual, my heart swells with pride when her dolls “speak” to each other in Spanish as she plays. One day at Costco, we sat in the food court next to a Spanish-speaking family. She turned her back to us gringos and asked them in perfect Spanish how they liked their food.
Now that my daughter is bilingual, my heart swells with pride when her dolls ‘speak’ to each other in Spanish."
You doubt that such an option exists in your city? So do my neighbors in our tony Milwaukee suburb of Whitefish Bay. There is a Spanish barrio everywhere, mis amigos. My daughter attends a charter school within the Milwaukee school district. An interdistrict-transfer program to encourage diversity allows her to attend school in the city, in much the way a minority student in an urban district can “transfer” to a suburban campus.
I, too, would probably have no idea that such an option exists, but I have become an expert, unwittingly, in seeking out bilingual education.
It began with my older son in the course of our family’s corporate move to Mexico City in 2002. I was obsessing over the research on the early window of opportunity in childhood for language exposure. To my surprise, all the preschools were bilingual or English-immersion. We were in the largest Spanish-speaking city in the world, and I could not find a Spanish-speaking preschool.
I extended my search into the foothills of the Federal District, on the western edge of Mexico City. Bilingual education had not yet reached Cuajimalpa, a small town about an hour’s drive from downtown. I enrolled my firstborn. He learned Spanish quickly, even transposing Spanish verbs onto English: “He pegged me at recess” from the Spanish verb pegar, to hit, with an English past-tense ending.
We moved from Mexico to Miami two years later. (Milwaukee was still in the future.) Miami was full of bilingual schools, and, in turn, I was full of hope for preserving Spanish for my son and his younger brother. Until I met all the playground moms. From a cultural perspective, they were fascinating to me. Mostly Cuban and Venezuelan, they were effortlessly bilingual. They spoke in perfect Spanish to their kids, who answered back in perfect English.
These Latina moms lamented the fact that once their kids started school, they stopped responding in Spanish. Even those who attended the bilingual schools. “But they understand everything,” they insisted. I heard this story over and over. And I didn’t want it to be mine.
Again, I searched for a preschool taught purely in Spanish, stocked with kids from Spanish-speaking homes so that English wouldn’t be an option. In Miami, I didn’t have to look as far as in Mexico. I traversed the historic neighborhood of Cuban exiles surrounding Miami’s 8th Street, known as Calle Ocho. There were plenty of overcrowded day-care centers, with barren playgrounds facing busy streets, teachers screaming at the kids in Cuban Spanish, and television-watching as part of the curriculum. I almost gave up.
After visiting about 40 day-care facilities, I found a little jewel in the rough—still overcrowded and still with a lot of screaming in Spanish. But I saw some very special teachers, a quiet playground with a huge tree, and heard not a word of English.
Sunflowers Academy was the anti-Montessori school. Kids were marched in lines to the next activity and banished to the salón de bebés or “baby room” if they didn’t behave. Rote memorization was the crux of the teaching philosophy. If it was writing time, everyone sat in their chair and wrote their name 20 times. If they got it right, they wrote their first and last names 20 more times. Everything was compared with “back in Cuba.” A hot lunch with rice and beans was included, and the kids learned the Cuban national anthem.
Recess was every child for him- or herself. Each class of 20-plus kids fought over three tricycles, two swings, and one slide. There were no computers, watercolor paints, or parent volunteers. These kids learned to assert their rights, defend themselves, and ... gasp ... play independently and creatively. My coddled firstborn started at Sunflowers shy and finicky, but outgrew those behaviors quickly. The school definitely contributed more to building his character than I did. And those mothers in the playground? They would ask me, “How do you get your kids to speak in Spanish?”
Such was the path we traveled to my daughter’s enrollment now at a Spanish-language charter school in Wisconsin. It hasn’t been an easy journey, but the advantages go beyond bilingualism. I see how well my children are performing in school, including my middle school son taking Spanish classes with the high schoolers. Numerous studies attest to improved brain-function skills in bilingual children, with the influence extending beyond childhood. A 2014 study, “Producing Bilinguals Through Immersion Education,” corroborated that the cognitive benefits of students in elementary school immersion programs mirror those of children raised as bilinguals.
But the kids aren’t the only ones who benefit. I get to practice my Spanish every day. I run my errands in the school community—everything from the tailor to the grocery produce is of better quality, at a lower cost in the barrio. And the PTA meetings host a full spread of tacos and chilaquiles. If you can find that in Wisconsin, you can find it anywhere.
A version of this article appeared in the December 10, 2014 edition of Education Week as Crossing the Border to Kindergarten