As the world continues to "shrink" and become more globalized, the benefits of being bilingual are increasingly important. For example, Spanish is now the second most-spoken language in the world. Right here in Kent County, the Hispanic population has more than tripled since 1990. Our local educational system is adapting to this new climate by introducing Spanish language immersion schools.
Ada Vista Elementary School was one of the first full immersion schools in the area. It began as an experimental classroom at Ada Elementary and now services around 1,000 students in a K-12 school. When students enter the school in kindergarten, they are fully immersed with classes taught 100% in Spanish, and even the librarian and office secretaries speak Spanish. Full immersion continues in first grade, and then English is slowly introduced throughout second through sixth grades. In middle and high school, students move to a 50/50 English and Spanish dual immersion model. They take all the same standardized tests and learn the same curriculum as they would in a traditional environment, but their learning is done in Spanish.
Not all Spanish immersion schools are set up exactly like Ada Vista. Southwest Community Campus is a dual immersion school with about half the students beginning as native English speakers and the other half as native Spanish speakers. They start in an 80% Spanish environment and gradually work toward a 50/50 English and Spanish program. Since many of the students and teachers come from Spanish-speaking countries, cultural learning is a key component in the school. It allows for the native Spanish-speaking students to stay connected with their first language and their grandparents while feeling proud of their heritage. The native English-speaking students also benefit by getting an understanding of where their classmates are from, and in turn, having a deeper quotient for empathy for people of different heritages. The goal of Southwest Community is to produce globally-proficient, bilingual and bicultural individuals.
There are other benefits of language immersion schools besides becoming bilingual. For a native English speaker to be taught in Spanish, it requires the brain to work harder. The student is learning a new idea while simultaneously working out the problems of the new language. Students become used to thinking on a deeper level and develop critical thinking skills that traditional education misses out on. Frequently, this results in immersion students performing better on standardized tests than their peers.
Being bilingual is a huge asset in today's society, and it's easy to understand why parents would want their children in an immersion school. Some people are even calling immersion schools the "New York" of Grand Rapids. Children are able to soak up and retain information better than adults, which makes learning a second language much easier for a younger person. Not only that, but being immersed in a new language means stepping outside your comfort zone, facing challenges and making mistakes-things that are very important for children to experience.
I was able to photograph an Ada Vista classroom for Rapid Growth Media. It truly is amazing how well the children could learn in a new language.