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Two schools put preschool kids on a bilingual path

Removing language barriers between students and their success

Published: May 12, 2023   
Courtesy St. Theresa School
Silvia Patlan teaches a pre-K class about the Spanish alphabet May 3 in St. Theresa’s current bilingual program. She will teach Spanish when the new bilingual program phases in this fall.

Two Catholic schools in Arkansas will offer a bilingual pre-kindergarten program starting this fall. In partnership with the University of Notre Dame Alliance for Catholic Education, St. Theresa School in Little Rock and Christ the King School in Fort Smith will launch a dual language pre-K in the 2023-2024 school year. The Early Childhood Language Immersion Program Initiative began with nine schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago in 2021 and added five schools during the 2022-2023 school year.

Located in a predominantly Hispanic community in southwest Little Rock, St. Theresa School classifies about 75 percent of its 208 pre-kindergarten-to-eighth-grade students as English Language Learners. An ELL is defined as a student who needs additional development in the English language to achieve their academic potential.

Instead of shying away from the language barriers that exist between the school’s native English and Spanish speakers, the school’s administration has taken steps to bridge the gap and produce students with outstanding abilities in a non-native language.

Kristy Dunn, principal of St. Theresa, led the effort to phase in bilingual classroom instruction at the beginning of the 2023-2024 school year. 

“We knew that the biggest population here at St. Theresa’s that wasn’t being served in our school was our Latino population,” said Dunn, who has been a mentor for the past two years at the Latino Enrollment Institute at Notre Dame, which offers ECLIP. It is designed to intuitively teach young children a foreign language through daily immersion in the classroom.

“We’re provided with books, songs and other resources that a Spanish-speaking teacher will use,” Dunn said. “We have Ms. (Silvia) Patlan who we … have as a pre-K teacher already. She will use the lessons for that and from University of Notre Dame and will go to each pre-K class for 30 minutes of dedicated Spanish daily.”

St. Theresa currently has two pre-K classes, but Patlan will conduct lessons for all pre-K classes if more are added.

The program will be only for pre-K students. When asked about what further language immersion will be in place after ECLIP, Dunn said, “Spanish is spoken pretty much everywhere you go here at the school, so there’s an opportunity to speak Spanish outside of the pre-K classroom. The other beautiful part about it is that our Spanish-speaking students are getting explicit instruction to make the connections between Spanish and English.”

The long-term goal is beyond teaching students how to count to 10 or how to order at a restaurant.

“The five-year goal is that they have a fluency in that language that they can continue building upon and hopefully opens them up in their careers,” Dunn said, “Long-term, I’m looking at setting up kids for success for life.”

Christ the King School, which is also launching the ECLIP program for pre-K students in the 2023-2024 school year, opened a dual language preschool in August.

Principal Myndi Keyton said the feedback has been positive so far.

“We’ve just heard that parents are really pleased with it,” she said. “They learned that their kids were coming home and teaching them things that they’ve learned in Spanish.”

Excitement for the new programs has not been exclusive to the administration.

“When we announced that we were going to be doing dual language in preschool, we had some people that put their kids in school just for that reason,” Keyton said. “We feel now that we’re moving into this partnership with the ECLIP program at Notre Dame and that the program will be an even better foundation. We will make more progress. I think it’s going to be very positive.”

The initial steps at St. Theresa have been increasing Latino enrollment at the school and having faculty complete modules from the University of Notre Dame on how to teach English Language Learners.

“Now we’re on step three,” Dunn said, “which we believe is a natural next step to be dual language in the pre-K years.”

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