The benefits and drawbacks of learning a second language at an early age has become a hot topic within communities of educators and parents.
On the First Coast, most parents who choose to raise bilingual children settle on Spanish as second language. But after that decision is made, the goal of helping the child in this endeavor is definitely not an easy task. Duval and St. Johns, as well as most counties in Florida, do not offer curricular Spanish until high school. However, the key to attain bilingualism -according to the Institute of Learning and Brain Science- is to ensure that the child practices both languages, at least on a weekly basis. With this goal in mind, LEE, an innovative parent-sustained program has emerged to get around government budget cuts and rise to the forefront in the early acquisition of Spanish.
In RB Hunt Elementary, Spanish-Cuban teacher Donna Guzzo hosted an end of the year party for Language Exploration Enrichment (LEE), a Spanish program founded nine years ago. She invited her K-5th students along with their parents, to partake in the last event of the semester and celebrate with them. The excitement of parents equaled that of the students. “Two groups, two groups” Guzzo asked her class. One-by-one parents began to take a seat on tiny chairs at their children’s tables to participate in didactic challenges and entertainment, all in Spanish.
“The fact of learning a whole new language makes me feel proud,” said Mac Jones (8) who at home shares his knowledge of Spanish with his parents and sometimes, “I teach them something,” he admitted. So does his classmate Sydney Garrison (10). “We’ve just returned from a trip to Costa Rica and my parents couldn’t understand what people were talking about, but I could at times translate,” she said smiling.
More than knowing a second language
Departing from his companions with an adios that almost carried no American accent, Mac Jones was one of the first to leave the classroom once the Spanish activity was over. The St. Augustine third grader counts up among an increasing number of Americans whose parents believe a second language is a most valuable commodity in a global economy.
That same belief drove Spanish teachers Donna Guzzo and Maria Janet Robles to create Language Exploration Enrichment (LEE) in 2003, as a self-supported program in St. Johns County. “LEE is a two-classes-per-week program that encourages students to learn a second language and prepares them for more advanced language courses and work opportunities,” said Janet Robles. The method turns out to be engaging when it gives students broader scenarios of language, that is, ideas organized in thematic units and presented in terms of pictures, words, symbols, and music for students to gradually form sentences in Spanish.
“The program is designed for children of all aptitudes to learn a second language according to their personal skills since not every one has the same learning style. Students learn by singing, role playing, and discovering, but most of all, they have fun,” Janet said, referring to the multiple intelligences method that LEE uses in the classroom.
Four of LEE students, Sydney Garrison, Herbie Steigelman, Cassie Mitchell, and McKenzie Platt have been nominated for the 2011 Scholar of the Year Award. This prestigious recognition granted by the Florida Foreign Languages Association has been awarded to LEE students for the past six years. “What we like most is that we learn about different countries each semester,” the nominated students told Eco Latino.
And it is precisely this cultural approach that has made LEE so attractive for the schools that have adopted it as an after school program. “The acquisition of a second language is most effective when it occurs early, and it also contributes to the understanding of our native language,” said Don Steele, RB Hunt Elementary principal. “It would be unfortunate to make these children wait until high school to teach them Spanish. It’s a shame that a second language is not included in the primary school curricula”.
Between ambition and budget
LEE is taught in 9 elementary schools and middle schools in St. Johns County and it costs parents 90 to 95 dollars per session (less than $7 per class). Teachers are not on salary; they are only compensated for classroom hours. Then, after covering the cost of teachers and budget, LEE donates the remnant of the proceeds to the schools themselves.
“Some principals have used these funds for the purchase of smart boards, new technology and books, while others applied it to cultural performances,” Guzzo explained. In fact, LEE has already donated $30,000 to its participating schools in St. Johns County.
At their discretion, schools can determine how they use these donated funds provided they are always invested to promote cultural awareness. “We have been able to buy ipads, which also benefited other bilingual students, such as ESOL (English as a Second Language) learners,” principal Steele said, stating that technology is a good way to stimulate curiosity and the desire to learn.
“First, love them; then, teach them”
“When we started LEE it was just Janet and I teaching in Durbin Creek Elementary,” said Guzzo underlying the cooperation of Durbin’s principal Dr. Patricia Falaney who was the first school authority to believe in the program nine years ago. From that moment on, LEE has grown to a team of 15 well-qualified instructors. “Today, we travel to symposia and seminars to bring the most up-to-date language learning methodology to our county,” the founders commented.
The recruitment of LEE instructors is a challenging process, and no matter how extensive their teaching experience is, they must pass a rigorous training before they reach the classroom. “The teachers LEE hires are passionate for the language and for children, both,” Robles assured. “We visit their classrooms frequently to assure that they are following the lesson plans and children are learning.”
LEE founders are opening the program in one more school every year, but the demand is still unmet. “I am a fan of the program and I hope it keeps expanding,” said Dr. Joseph Joyner, Superintendent of St Johns County School Board. He stressed the importance of an early start to acquire a second language but at the same time, regretted the fact that budget constrains still prevent the inclusion of a Spanish learning program in the elementary school curricula: a long anticipated resurce for the community.
Contact LEE, (904) 657-1918, email LEEStJohns@aol.com.