Breaking the language barrier

Seton Academy blazing new trail in bilingual education

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CENTRAL FALLS – Although they may be a little too young to fully comprehend just how special they are, the incoming class of Pre-kindergarteners at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Academy this August will begin the school year as part of an elite national group. 

At Seton Academy, located in the heart of one of the state’s most financially challenged communities, about 60 percent of the 152 students currently enrolled comes from a household where English is the primary language spoken. In the remaining 40 percent of households in which English is not the primary language, most, but not all, are Spanish-speaking.

This fall, the school’s Pre-K students will become the first in their school – and one of only 12 Catholic school communities in the nation – to participate in an innovative learning model that delivers the curriculum not only in English, but also in Spanish. Two-Way Immersion Network for Catholic Schools (TWIN-CS) has been nationally recognized as a highly effective approach to bilingual education.

Classes participating in the program mix native English speaking students with peers who speak Spanish, allowing both groups to become bilingual.

The school applied last summer to be part of the new program, and was accepted this year.

“We’re one church, not just an English-speaking community and a Spanish-speaking community,” said Principal Doreen Engel, who contends the dual immersion program, which will be rolled out first to the Pre-k students with a goal of later expanding to other grades at the school, provides many benefits for both English and Spanish speakers alike.

For native Spanish speakers, the program helps to preserve their culture, ensuring that they are learning academically correct Spanish, and it gives parents who prefer to speak Spanish access to professional staff who can converse in their language.

For English speakers, it teaches students how to speak Spanish without an accent.

“Speaking with a native fluency is really preparing them for their future,” Engel said.

The goal of the program is to eventually teach lessons to the younger students in both English and Spanish, and to provide more rigorous training in Spanish for the older students, leading to academic gains for both groups.

Engel hopes to have two groups of Pre-K students enrolled in the program, which begins at the end of August when school goes back into session.

“It will be a true immersion program,” she said.

“There’s such a demand for bilingual education and multicultural education. It’s a relatively new concept for Rhode Island.

Crystal Godin, a member of Seton Academy’s Parents Association, said it’s an honor to have been accepted into such a prestigious national program that fits in very well with the school’s mission to provide a well-rounded education to the children living in and around Central Falls.

Seton Academy paraprofessional Rosa Ramirez, who was born in Guatemala, immigrated to Rhode Island when she was 10 years old. She now works with students in the Pre-K program.

She strongly supports the TWIN-CS initiative at Seton Academy.

“I think it’s very important to speak two languages,” she said.

Through the TWIN-CS, staff and faculty from Seton Academy will collaborate with the school leadership teams of the other 11 accepted schools from across the country. All participating schools will receive continuous support from experienced scholars and practitioners from Boston College, Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis., and other institutions across the nation, who will guide the design and implementation of the two-way immersion model best suited for each school community.

“Scholar-practitioners from across the country will ensure success of the two-way immersion program by providing on site coaching and mentoring for school teams. In addition, schools will form a working network of support and receive help from collaborating colleges and universities through the duration of the program,” said Heather Gossart, a member of the National Catholic Educational Association and co-director of the Innovation Institute for Catholic Educators, which is promoting the immersion program.

TWIN-CS is the first initiative of the Innovation Institute, a program designed to promote and support cutting-edge academic opportunities for Pre-K-12 Catholic education. The Innovation Institute formed as a partnership of the Barbara and Patrick Roche Center for Catholic Education in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College and the NCEA.

“The need for citizens to be bilingual is increasing in demand in the global workplace,” said Patricia A. Weitzel-O’Neill, Ph.D., executive director of the Barbara and Patrick Roche Center for Catholic Education at Boston College. “Bilingual graduates have an advantage as they apply to college and eventually, professional careers.”

Martin Scanlan, Ph.D., assistant professor of Education at Marquette University, is a faculty design team member working with schools across the nation to implement TWIN-CS.

“This program not only will teach students the mechanics of two languages, but by blending cultures in the classroom, will foster cultural understanding among the student population at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Academy,” said Scanlan, who will work with the local staff at Boston College this month.

Engel and some of her staff have taken part in online networking training over the last several months and will meet with their peers for a weeklong session at Boston College this month.

Tabitha Aldrich, director of Seton Academy’s Pre-K program, will be one of those attending the training in how to implement the program along with Engel, second grade teacher Debbie Painter and third grade teacher Dalia Quintanilla. Engle plans to hire a bilingual teacher in the next few weeks to teach the Spanish language component of the Pre-K curriculum.

Aldrich, who has a master’s degree in education, will oversee the program. She believes strongly in the concept of learning through play, which helps to keep students engaged in the subject matter.

She feels that games in which her students match colors and learn through education centers will translate effectively in any language.

“We have so many diverse cultures in our classroom. The students have taught me a lot,” Aldrich said.

“I’m very excited about beginning this new program.”