Blond, spiky-haired Jayce Koke, 6, sits at his desk along with 18 other
students forming words with paper letters. "Amo," a parent helper says, clutching her chest passionately.
The children draw hearts on a separate piece of paper next to the Spanish verb, which means "I love."
It’s the first half of the day at Keller Elementary School in Mesa — Spanish-speaking time for Jayce’s kindergarten class. Keller launched the Mesa district’s first and only dual-language program in August.
Children in the optional program spend half their day learning in Spanish and the other half in English.
So far, teachers say students are grasping another language well.
"It’s so much easier when they’re younger," says kindergarten teacher Rachel Holdenbach. "They’re sponges. . . . They absorb everything."
Last year the district approached Keller principal Mario Ventura with the idea to offer a dual-language program. District officials wanted to provide parents with educational choices they might otherwise have looked for in a charter school, Ventura says.
In the first year, the program is being offered in a kindergarten class and a first-grade class. The children who are participating will stay together through sixth grade, with the school hiring an additional dual-language teacher each year as the students progress.
Ventura says research was presented to the public and interested parents last school year. Enrollment opened in the spring.
Immediately, more than 40 sets of parents signed up their children. So many applied that a waiting list was created.
Keller curriculum specialist Marci Koke says she and her husband talked about enrolling Jayce in the dual-language kindergarten program when she heard about it, though he was already enrolled in their neighborhood school in Gilbert.
"I felt (Jayce) was bright and he’d be able to pick up the kindergarten curriculum," Koke says. "Who wouldn’t want their child to speak two languages?"
Once the program was approved, she immediately applied.
Koke wants Jayce to know Spanish because it will create more opportunities for him in the future and he will be more culturally sensitive, something she doesn’t think he would have experienced at his school in Gilbert.
It just "didn’t have the (same) cultural make up" as Keller, she says.
Keller, 1445 E. Hilton Ave., is located in a part of south-central Mesa that is undergoing a demographic shift. In 1980, the school was 82.8 percent white and 13.1 percent Hispanic. Today the school is 43.3 percent white and 48.2 percent Latino, as well as 4.6 percent black, 1.9 percent American Indian and 2.1 percent Asian.
Every night Koke says she and her son review Spanish books sent home by Holdenbach and practice speaking.
"He seems a little hesitant to speak, but I have noticed that he will say some things (at home)," she says.
Children are immersed in the dual-language environment the minute they step through the classroom door. If something is written in English, below or beside it is the Spanish translation. Colorful labels are everywhere; from "la basura" — the trash can, to "el reloj" — the clock.
Just 35 days into the pilot program, students are adjusting, but they still can become antsy or frustrated.
"It gets kind of stressful," says Jeannette Vidrio, the first-grade dual-language teacher. "They just get nervous and it’s hard."
Vidrio says she encourages the kids to look at her gestures, her lips and her facial expressions to understand the meaning of what she’s saying. She spends time with her class reviewing flashcards that have pictures of shapes, animals and actions. The children interact by performing a gesture and saying the Spanish word that corresponds with the picture. The repetition helps cement vocabulary in the students’ minds, she says.
The classes attracted mostly non-Spanish speakers, though both classes have three or four students who are native Spanish speakers. Those students are considered "role model students," says Irene Frklich, the district’s director for English language acquisition.
Those students are beneficial in the classroom because they can provide additional peer group help, she says.
Koke says she and her husband will evaluate her son’s progress at the end of the year and decide if they’ll let him continue with the program.
"If he’s ready for first grade, I’ll bring (my daughter) in, too," she says.