DIRIGO STORIES: Spanish immersion setting kids up for success

These kindergarten students are the third class at Lyseth Elementary School in Portland to join the school's Spanish Immersion Program (WGME).

PORTLAND (WGME) -- Circle time sounds a little different in one Lyseth Elementary Kindergarten classroom.

Students are greeted with a "buenos dias!" instead of "good morning" by their teacher, Veronica Diez Guardia.

"They're excited, and it's really nice to see,” she said.

Diez Guardia teachers her class of English-speaking Spanish.

"It was really hard (at first)," Diez Guardia said. "It was really overwhelming for them."

The students are part of the Lyseth Spanish Immersion Program, now in its third year. Students whose parents sign them up for the program learn 90 percent of their core subjects in Spanish. The bilingual teachers only speak Spanish when teaching reading, math, science, and social studies.

By the end of the school year, Diez Guardia says the students understand almost every word she says.

"Maybe I'm not teaching a certain word, but they get it. They pick it up here and there, and they start using it in a natural way."

First grade teacher Pedro Zamorro says their speaking skills really start to develop when the kids get to him in first grade.

"If they don't know a word in Spanish, they just mix," he said. "They use English words and then they keep speaking in Spanish."

The current second graders in Grecia Caraballo's class are the first group in the Spanish immersion program. They're now finishing up their third year of Spanish-only instruction.

"They are already fluent by the time they get to second grade," Caraballo said. "They're amazing."

The students in the program will continue Spanish immersion through fifth grade at Lyseth. Starting in third grade, the students will begin focusing on reading and writing in English.

Until they get to that point, parents are encouraged to read with their children, in English, at home to help develop those skills.

"Spanish is the second-most spoken language in this country, so no matter where they go in this country, they'll be able to use the language with anyone," Caraballo said.

In fact, it's already coming in handy for some of the second-graders.

"I go to Costa Rica a lot, and now I can translate for my grandma and grandpa and my mom and dad," said 8-year-old Samuel.

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