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Only Spanish-immersion program in Maine offered at Portland school

Students are leaving fifth grade fluent in Spanish.

PORTLAND, Maine — A group of students as young as kindergarteners is learning core elementary subjects fully in Spanish.

The program has been happening for eight years at Lyseth Elementary School in Portland.

Lenore Williams, school principal, said one of the goals of the program is to set students up for success by learning a second language from a very early age.

"They have such a good level of understanding, reading, hearing. It's impressive," second-grade teacher Maria Eugenia Fernandez said. "It opens up so many doors for them, and it opens their mind to other cultures and another language."

"There was a lot of conversation on which language and why, and we talked about the fact that Spanish is the most widely spoken language globally," Williams said.

This school program provides bilingual education to English speakers, starting in kindergarten and continuing until fifth grade.

Williams explained the full immersion program goes from kindergarten until second grade. Then, in second grade, a few classes are taught in English to have those skills also developing equally with the Spanish language classes.

"Spanish is the second-most spoken language in the United States, and biliteracy in Spanish and English makes students attractive to colleges and future employers," superintendent Xavier Botana said.

"We are producing kids in grade five that leave us and head on to middle school, and they are bilingual and biliterate," Williams added.

Williams said she does worry about the proficiency the students have once they move on to middle and high school, because there is no such program available to students like that in the district.

"There has been a huge commitment to learn the language, [and] I would hate to see students lose that over time," she said.

"If you don't practice it too much, you lose it," Fernandez said.

Williams also said one of the challenges has been finding the staffing to keep the program up and running. 

Just a few months ago, the second-grade teacher Maria Eugenia Fernandez was chosen as teacher of the year by the Ministry of Education, Embassy of Spain for her efforts in one of the creative projects she did with the class.

“The jury, after analyzing many projects of the highest quality, has decided to award the prize to this project thanks to the excellent preparation of the activities and its final result,” the education attaché wrote in a letter announcing the award.

Fernández has taught in the program for three years. 

“It has been extremely inspiring to see the curiosity in the students' faces, to value their knowledge, to empathize with their concerns, and a pleasure to lead the way towards playful, open and solid learning,” Fernández said.

The immersion program started with one kindergarten cohort in 2014 at Lyseth. A new class was added each year. 

Williams said the program has a lot of interest.

"There is more interest than we can support," Williams said. "Parents can apply to the program, all entering kindergarten families. If we have more interest than seats available, we move to a lottery process. That has happened in the past."

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