“My husband knows a little Spanish and I thought it would be good for her to learn also,” said Mrs. Hess. “They are really good here; we’re really happy.”
Ester Hess, a kindergartener, is one of 35 students enrolled in the K-2 elementary, 1850 Airport Highway. It is one of four Ohio bilingual charter elementary schools operated by SMART Academies, based in Dayton, Ohio. Two SMART schools are located in Columbus, one in Dayton and in Toledo.
At the Toledo school, students learn everything in both Spanish and English, including the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of each school day. The school has six full-time teachers who teach kindergarten, first- and second grades and Spanish, art and music classes.
“One of the biggest misperceptions that people have is that you have to be Latino to come to school here,” said María González, the Toledo school’s administrator. “People need to know the importance of a bilingual education.
“You are going to learn about the Latino culture and language; and you need to be open to that. We teach diversity.”
Approximately 5 percent of the students enrolled at Toledo SMART Elementary this fall are non-Latinos, according to school officials. Even among Latino students there is great diversity – Honduran, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Guatemalan, Venezuelan, and Dominican.
Although there is a special emphasis on Latino culture and history, students also learn European, African American, and Native American history, said Ms. González.
Every school day begins with students learning new words in English and Spanish. For example, during a recent class, kindergarteners were learning how to say the word “abrazo,” which translates to “hug, or embrace” in English.
Students must demonstrate that they understand the English and Spanish translations of the word and know how to spell them in both languages. The students have already learned how to pronounce and spell days of the week, the twelve months of the year, and how to count up to 20 in both languages, said Ms. González.
Developing strong social skills is also a big priority at the school. When a student is asked to perform a task, such as writing a newly learned word on the classroom blackboard, her peers shout out words of encouragement and help the student sound the word aloud. When a student is successful, everyone celebrates their success with a chorus of “muy bien,” or “very good.”
That teamwork is also evident in how students interact with each other. Students are taught to be courteous and polite, and they encourage each other to be well-behaved. If a student breaks the rules, their peers don’t ostracize the guilty party; they quickly welcome them back into the fold and try to encourage them to behave, noted Ms. González.
Good behavior is encouraged by rewarding students. Students who do exceptionally well are allowed to be on the school’s “radio station,” which is actually the school’s public address system where students take turns reading school announcements and leading the Pledge of Allegiance. Well-behaved students also get to enjoy special perks such as being allowed to play on a full-sized, donated pinball machine.
Parental involvement is strongly encouraged and school staff does their part to have personal contact with them on a regular basis – even if it’s just to call and tell parents that their child is doing very well that week.
Toledo resident Juan Yax said he loves the personal interaction that the school offers parents. He has two children enrolled at the school; Fernando, 7, a first-grader, and Yalieshka, 5, a kindergartener.
“I wanted my children to learn English and Spanish,” said Yax. ‘But this school is very good at teaching them social skills, which will give them an advantage in life.”
Yax also likes that each student is allowed to progress at their own rate and teachers design individual curriculums, tailored to help each student progress.
“In other schools if they don’t understand things they fell behind and are forgotten about,” he said.
Toledo SMART Elementary also schedules various afterschool activities, such as a month family movie night, to encourage families to spend time together. This past weekend the school sponsored a “Pancakes with Santa” event, which drew about 70 people to the school.
Students are also given homework every night that parents are expected to help their children with.
“No matter what we do as educators here, if the parents don’t continue it at home it’s all for nothing,” said Morgan Jeffcoat, Spanish Language Coordinator for SMART Academies. Jeffcoat oversees the company’s four bilingual charter schools by making sure teachers are following a uniform curriculum and to monitor students’ overall progress.
“That’s a big issue with us,” said Jeffcoat. “Learning to become bilingual isn’t just about having more opportunities to make more money someday. It’s also about making students better socially, culturally and spiritually.”
The new Toledo school does have its challenges; mostly financial. The school has had to rely on private donations for many of its playground equipment and school supplies. The Mexican Consulate office in Detroit recently donated 400 books so that the school could start a library.
Renovations to the building’s existing kitchen are going slow due to the lack of funds, so breakfast and lunch must be delivered daily through the Lucas County Feed the Children Program.
Ms. González says her dream is to begin serving hot breakfast and lunch onsite in the next couple of years. The food would be as culturally diverse as the student body, says.
“My goal is to be able to make fresh, healthy food here that is also a part of the student’s culture,” she said.
The ultimate goal at Toledo SMART Elementary is to expand through grade six. So far school officials are pleased at the progress in Toledo.
“Much of the credit goes to María González,” said Jeffcoat. “She has so much energy and passion, and she’s determined to make this school succeed. “
For more information about Toledo’s SMART Elementary contact the school at (419) 214-3290 or visit www.toledosmart.org.