En Nuestra Lengua
Helping kids become truly bilingual
At Bach School on a recent Saturday, a teacher reads a Spanish-language picture book on grocery shopping to a group of five-year-olds. When she asks where their parents buy food, the kids shout "Meijer's!" and "Trader Joe's!"
"Muy bien," the teacher replies.
This is "En Nuestra Lengua," a free Spanish-language program for bilingual children. Its name translates as "In Our Language," but many simply call it the "Spanish School." Founded two years ago as a playgroup for children from Spanish-speaking families, it quickly morphed into an academic program with almost a hundred students from ages three to eleven.
Teresa Satterfield, who teaches Spanish at the U-M, started the school with her husband, Jose Benki, at the university's Survey Research Center. They were raising their two young sons to be bilingual by speaking and reading Spanish at home, but wanted a place where their boys could use the language with other children.
The space at Bach is donated, and the couple and other parents volunteer their time; grants cover the cost of professional teachers and supplies. Though some parents have offered to pay tuition, says Satterfield, they've kept the classes free because they want "no kind of division" between those who can and can't afford it. The students' parents include doctors, professors, and day workers, and represent a dozen countries. They share a desire for their children to master written as well as spoken Spanish and to be proud of their Latino heritage.
In Ann Arbor and throughout the country, Hispanic kids' test scores in reading and math lag behind the scores of many of their peers. Satterfield says that programs like En Nuestra Lengua can help, because studies show that children who can read and write the language they hear at home also do better in the language they speak at school.
Satterfield coordinates much of the curriculum and writes grant applications, while Benki crunches the numbers to evaluate its success. To their excitement, they've documented solid gains through twice-a-year formal testing
and weekly tracking of the children's homework completion and attendance. "Kindergartners, most dramatically, saw improvement," Satterfield emails, "going from well below the national median in the fall of 2010 to within one standard deviation of it in the spring [of 2011]." Teachers in the kids' home schools also have noticed the improvement, one writing, "In all my years of ESL work, this is the first time that my Hispanic students have discussed going to college."
"I think that what gives kids satisfaction is knowing they are learning skills in the language they are oftentimes more comfortable with at home," says Bach principal Shelley Bruder. Parents who don't speak English are especially eager volunteers; in "Spanish School," they feel comfortable helping with their children's homework.
The school's biggest problem now is that it can't accommodate everyone who wants to take part. Satterfield says they're hoping other schools besides Bach will offer space. "We have everything in place" to expand, she says. "We are just waiting to see if more funding comes through."
This article has been edited since it appeared in the June 2012 Ann Arbor Observer. An error in describing the program's grant-writer.
[Originally published in June, 2012.]