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‘En Español, por favor’

Lansing Christian School is immersing kids in Spanish

At the whiteboard, teacher Sandy Tijerina illustrates a concept for her kindergarteners. Seated, teacher aide Michelle Smith is ready to help. (Photo: Ashlee De Wit)
by Ashlee De Wit

LANSING, Ill. (January 2018) – In Sandy Tijerina’s kindergarten class at Lansing Christian School, students are learning their letters, figuring out the calendar, and reading to each other. They study science and math, and they do a lot of singing. But unlike most area kindergarten classes, they’re doing all this in Spanish.

Tijerina’s class is part of Lansing Christian School’s Spanish immersion program, where students who grow up in English-speaking homes learn Spanish as a second language—not in the standard Spanish classes, but through exclusive use of the language.

“It’s like a typical kindergarten class—but in Spanish only,” Tijerina said.

From the moment the kindergarteners enter the classroom, there’s no English allowed. These students will be in Spanish-only classrooms until third grade; then English is re-introduced slowly, in increasing amounts, until they graduate.

By fifth grade, studies show, they will likely be fluent in both languages.

Lansing Christian students haven’t gotten to that point yet—the school is now three years into its program, and the first Spanish immersion class is currently in second grade.

Getting started: ¡Comencemos! (Let’s get started!)

Tijerina’s kindergarten class is the starting point for all Spanish immersion students at Lansing Christian—it’s not an easy program to transfer into later.

“There is so much development in that first year, it’s nearly impossible to jump in after kindergarten,” Principal Jon Postma explained.

Each August, Tijerina welcomes a new class of five-year-olds—some of whom are starting school for the first time; all of whom speak exclusively English—into her Spanish-only classroom. The job certainly comes with some challenges. After all, kindergarten is already a big transition for many students; adding a foreign language adds another level of stress.

Tijerina understands this—she grew up in a Spanish-speaking home, and essentially had an English-immersion education.

“You have to be consistent and patient,” Tijerina said. “They are nervous at first, so we need to do everything in our power to make them feel safe, and feel confident that they will learn.”

Immersion teaching requires a lot of one-on-one attention, so the student-to-teacher ratio is kept low. Michelle Smith is an aide in a class of 14 students. (Photo: Ashlee De Wit)
She has help in the classroom—Michelle Smith serves as the kindergarten aide. Since the teaching requires a lot of one-on-one attention, the school keeps the student-to-teacher ratio low. Their current kindergarten class has 14 students.

Smith is not a native Spanish speaker. “I had a Spanish minor in college,” she said. “I know the difficulty of learning as an adult; I know the benefits of learning early. They (the students) are complete sponges, and they soak it all up. It’s a wonderful program, and I’m excited to be a part of it.”

Sticking with it: ¡Practiquemos! (Let’s practice!)

The amount they learn in the first few months is significant.

By January, the kindergarteners respond to their teacher’s questions, recite Bible verses, sing songs and even converse with each other, entirely in Spanish.

To help the students pick up the language, the teachers demonstrate everything they say—especially early in the year. Instead of just telling the students what to do, they show them: for example, they don’t just tell them to sit at the table—they take each child by the hand when they arrive, and lead them to their seat. Eventually, students learn the word for table (la mesa), and go there on their own.

Patience, consistency and routines are keys to success—along with lots of singing.

“We have a song for almost everything,” Tijerina said.

Kelly Burney, the school’s computer teacher, serves as the point person for the Spanish immersion program at Lansing Christian. She assists the principal and teachers with research and needed materials and acts as a connection point for parents. She also has a first-grade daughter in the Spanish immersion program, so she has firsthand experience.

“Some days it’s really exciting—like when I realized that she’s thinking in Spanish,” Burney said. She recounted an evening at home when her daughter casually asked for the “grapadora,” instead of the “stapler,” because the Spanish term came more naturally.

But being part of such a new and different program can be difficult for parents, too.

“It’s also terrifying, because you really have to trust the teachers; you have to take a risk and have faith in the program,” she said.

It can also be difficult for children to explain to their parents what they are learning.

The school aims to include parents as much as possible, welcoming them into the classroom frequently through meetings, parties, and other events. The staff communicates through email, texts, and a newsletter.

“We want to keep them as informed as possible,” Tijerina said. “Some kids speak Spanish only in the classroom, so it helps when parents can see them learning and flourishing.”

Soaking it up: ¡Si podemos! (Yes we can!)

There are trade-offs in those first few years, when students’ academic focus is another language.

“It’s a high cognitive demand,” said Postma. “It’s not just new concepts they are learning, but a new vocabulary.”

Burney has friends whose kids are currently more advanced in English language and reading—but she is confident that her daughter will catch up.

“Data shows that most (Spanish immersion) students are even with or ahead (of their peers) by fourth or fifth grade,” she said.

Parents can choose an English track for their kindergarteners at Lansing Christian; Spanish immersion is not the only option. But Burney and her husband plan to send their other two daughters through the Spanish immersion program as well.

“I imagine that soon they’ll be sitting around talking about us and we won’t know what they are saying!” she laughed.

Para más información (For more information!)

Parents who are interested in the program for their own children can find out more about enrollment on the school’s website, Many of the employees also invited parents to call the office at (708) 474-1700 and schedule a tour—including a stop in a Spanish immersion classroom.

“We really encourage parents to visit,” Smith said. “I think it’s normal to be nervous or skeptical, but if they come and see it, I think they’ll be amazed at what the kids are capable of doing.”

Bonus: video

A kindergarten student leads the class in prayer before lunch, en Español:


Ashlee De Wit
Ashlee De Wit
Ashlee De Wit is a freelance writer and a Lansing native. After starting her career covering high school sports in Iowa, she's excited to be back in her hometown, reporting the stories of her local community — such as the opening of Troost, the informal Lansing pickleball club, a TF South Homecoming game, and Common Ground, Lansing's experiment with healthy race relations.