Video: Portland Spanish Immersion First-Graders Learn Muy Rapido

Jun 8, 2016

When Pedro Zamarro teaches his first-grade class, it’s all in Spanish. What’s unusual about it, though, is that Zamarro’s students aren’t from Spain, Mexico or South America. They attend Lyseth Elementary in Portland, which two years ago launched the state’s first public Spanish immersion class for first-graders.

Today, students are speaking near-fluent Spanish. But bringing new culture into an aging, predominantly white state hasn’t been easy.

Zamarro leads his students at Lyseth Elementary School recently in a kind of geometry game. A projector displays a range of shapes — cubes, spheres, rectangular prisms. He points at them, then has the students yell out each shape’s name, in Spanish.

But it’s the moments in between these lessons that show just how different Spanish immersion is.

Zamarro walks through the classroom, hovering over a few students to help them fill out a worksheet. He asks them a question, and they answer, in nearly perfect Spanish. There are a few stumbles, a few asks of como se dice here and there, but for 99 percent of the time, this classroom sounds like it might be in the heart of a Spanish community.

“It’s amazing, they get the vocabulary real quick,” Zamarro says.

He says he’s often surprised at just how well his students pick up the new language.

Pedro Zamarro
Credit Brian Bechard / MPBN

“You can give them a new word one day in a morning meeting like, “earthquake,” and then two weeks ago, that same word comes up again, and they remember. And you didn’t work on that word, they just remember. They’re sponges. It’s amazing,” he says.

This style of bilingual immersion education isn’t new. Experts estimate that there are more than 1,000 language immersion classrooms nationwide. Schools tout the ways that bilingual education helps students learn problem-solving, empathy and literacy.

Lyseth Principal Lenore Williams says it’s a great start for kids who’ll one day be competing for jobs in a global economy.

“It’s pretty well known that if you’re going to be successful in the future, bilingualism is going to be a requisite skill. A critical skill,” she says.

Lyseth formed the immersion only two years ago, but the program is expanding every year. It’s adding classrooms for higher grade levels until 2019, when it expects to have immersion classrooms from kindergarten through fifth grade.

In Lyseth Elementary's immersion classroom, first-graders learn and communicate only in Spanish.
Credit Brian Bechard / MPBN

But Williams says there’s a catch — and that’s finding enough good, bilingual teachers.

“That is probably the most difficult thing about having the program at Lyseth,” she says. “We have not been able to hire anybody from within the United States.”

Williams says the school posts the openings nationwide with few replies. So the district now works with the Ministry of Spain, which recruits teachers from overseas to spend 3 years teaching in America on a three-year visa.

“So that puts us at a constant state where we’re hiring,” she says.

But the challenges of immersion learning don’t just fall on administrators. Parents have to take on new responsibilities at home, too.

Lyseth student Margaret Roma brings home some math homework recently to work on with her dad, Mark. She pulls out a few crayons to color in shapes on a workbook page.

Like any doting parent, Mark watches and makes sure Margaret’s following the book’s directions. But there’s a problem. He doesn’t speak Spanish. To get around the problem, Mark pulls out an iPad and hovers it over the workbook. On the iPad’s screen, the instructions — in Spanish — transform into English.

“Yeah, it’s not an exact science,” he says. “This is one of the cheapest apps, called Word Lens. See, it says ‘Color in the areas that are red.’ So again, you kind of piece it together,” he says.

This solves the Spanish gap somewhat. But Roma says his other challenge has been helping Margaret learn to read in English.

The immersion classroom’s reading lessons are in Spanish, meaning there’s no time to work on English literacy. Research indicates that while immersion students do fall behind in English in their first few years, they catch up and often surpass their peers by the end of elementary school.

Still, Mark says as a parent, it was tough to see Margaret initially struggle to keep up with her friends. But after working hard at night, those skills have improved.

“Her and I really started doing a lot more reading at night, getting books at her level. Really going over some of the sentence structure, the pieces she’d be getting in a classroom. And then her last conference, her scores had come up dramatically. Now she reads to herself every night, goes to bed, we take turns reading back and forth,” he says.

Despite those challenges, Lenore Williams isn’t worried.

“To be honest with you, we’re not concerned if we start to see some regression or some lags in literacy skills. We know that’s common. We should be seeing that the language skills in Spanish will increase over time,” she says.

Williams is so convinced by the results so far that she sees Portland possibly expanding its foreign-language immersion programs in the future to French or even Mandarin.

Correction: Pedro Zamarro, not Zammaro, teaches Spanish-immersion first grade, not kindergarten.