Woodbridge school launches Spanish classes that preserve heritage

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Each Dec. 12, the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Hispanic students at St. Thomas Aquinas Regional School in Woodbridge come dressed in cultural attire. Led by a mariachi band, eighth-grade boys carry an image of Our Lady from a bilingual Mass into the school hall. Parents, students and faculty share a feast of Central and South American food. “It’s really beautiful,” said Dominican Sister Kateri Rose Masters, principal. “The kids look forward to that every year.” 

The student body reflects the multicultural population of Northern Virginia. Some of the students’ first languages are Amharic, Arabic and Malayalam. Besides English, the most commonly spoken language is Spanish. 

As part of the school’s language program, all students take Spanish classes. But keeping the many native speakers engaged in a class designed for novices isn’t easy. 

“Differentiation is a keyword in education — it’s making sure that you’re providing challenging instruction to each student at their level,” said Spanish teacher Brittany Borman. “Having a class that has such a disparity of levels makes it difficult.” 

“A year and a half ago, the Spanish teachers recognized (that) we have a considerable population who speak Spanish, and they can get bored in Spanish class,” said Sister Kateri Rose. So this school year, they’re launching a class to allow Hispanic students to stay engaged and connected to their cultural tongue — Spanish for Heritage Speakers.

“We (want to) encourage them and let them know what a gift their dual language ability is,” said Sister Kateri Rose. “I think it’s so important for them to know that this is a gift and to use this gift. This lets them take ownership of their culture.”

Though the 20 seventh -and eighth- graders in the program have a good grasp of the language, there’s still much to learn, said Borman, who will teach the two classes. “A lot of the kids speak very well, but are lacking certain grammatical structures. Spelling errors are really common — they tend to spell things the way they would spell them in English phonetically,” she said. 

The goal of the class is to have students become biliterate, so much of the class will be focused on reading, said Borman. The school applied for a grant from Dollar General that could give them the funds to add 80-100 more Spanish-language books to their library. 

As teachers work to improve competency in Spanish across the board, there are still many students who struggle with English. “We’ve had as many as 19 languages represented in the school,” so there’s a definite need, said Sister Kateri Rose.  

To bridge the gap between the students’ first language and English, there is an English Language Learners teacher, Lydia De Jesus. Last school year was the first year De Jesus was able to work in that capacity full-time. “She will either pull them out of the classroom for direct instruction or push into the classroom to ensure that their language isn’t a barrier to their learning,” said Sister Kateri Rose.

Since the Diocese of Arlington has a large Hispanic population, the principal sees both programs as ways to accommodate the needs of current and future students. “We have seen a steady increase in the number of Spanish-speaking students in our school,” said Sister Kateri Rose. “That’s going to be more and more a need, so our ELL program and this Spanish for Heritage Speakers program are going to meet the need of parents who want their children to have a good Catholic education and also want their children to maintain a connection to the culture.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018

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