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Manchester wants to launch a Spanish-English immersion program next fall. But what would it take to run it?

Pamela Mora, who is from Colombia, and her children, Joseph and Madeline, listen to a Manchester School District presentation about dual-language classes at Memorial High School.
Gabriela Lozada
Pamela Mora, who is from Colombia, and her children, Joseph and Madeline, listen to a Manchester School District presentation about dual-language classes at Memorial High School.

Jenn Wilson was born in the U.S., but she grew up with bilingual parents. She talked in Spanish with her mom and in English with her dad.

She attended a dual-language immersion program in New York from kindergarten to third grade. During the first half of the day, she remembers, her classes were in Spanish — and then the teacher would switch to English.

That educational format, she said, helped her preserve her parents’ language as she prepared to face the challenges of growing up in an English-speaking country. She is now one of the Manchester School District’s bilingual liaisons.

“It helped my brain to think fast in two ways,” she said. “Sometimes I don’t know what language I am speaking, it comes naturally.”

Manchester School District wants to offer that same opportunity to students, starting in fall 2024. These kinds of dual-language immersion programs allow students to take classes in two languages, without repeating the same subject twice; it is more about finding balance in the curriculum.

Due to Manchester’s large Hispanic population, the district decided to start with a Spanish-based program. The program is funded in part by a $250,000 grant from the New Hampshire Department of Education.

If the district moves ahead, it would be “the only program of this nature in New Hampshire,” Superintendent Jennifer Chmiel Gillis said in a press release.

The district is still ironing out the specific details of the program. It’s getting help from Taju Educational Solutions, a consulting company based in Chicago. As part of that effort, Alexandra Güilámo, a consultant for the company, is trying to learn more about students’ needs.

“I am learning about the community,” she said. “So then I can say what can be possible and successful.”

She said the school might also need to consider whether it needs to update its policies, teaching requirements or other factors before moving forward. But most importantly, she said, the district must be committed to developing the program for at least six years.

This Wednesday, Güilámo led an information session in Spanish at Memorial High School, attended by six families. She explained that the program will start with kindergarten students, and the district will add more grades as they grow up.

“Sometimes the parents are afraid their children won’t learn English with this program,” she said. “But they will learn!”

Güilámo said dual-language immersion programs promote relationships between different cultures and help children have a wider vision of the world.

“Sometimes their communities have taken away their right to preserve their language,” she said. “[But with this program] English and Spanish speaking kids can have a beautiful exchange as they share between them their culture and learn the school curriculum.”

Victoria Vasquez, from Honduras, said her 2-month-old son could be a perfect candidate for this education in a few years. But her 6-year-old won’t qualify because of his age. She hopes the district will expand the program to other grades.

“He dreams of vacationing in Honduras, but when kids like him don’t speak Spanish, other kids make fun of them,” she said. “I don’t want that to happen.”

Some parents at the information session were concerned about how the district will ensure equitable access for Hispanic kids, since there's likely to be a lot of interest, Güilámo said she couldn’t provide a clear answer because it would depend on district policy.

But she said, based on her company’s experience working with schools in 47 states, dual language immersion programs work best when there is a 50-50 ratio of Hispanic students and White or other races.

“We are not looking just for Latino children to give them this gift,” she said. “It is more about who can share their language.”

Gabriela Lozada is a Report for America corps member. Her focus is on Latinx community with original reporting done in Spanish for ¿Qué hay de Nuevo NH?.
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