PORTLAND — Reiche Elementary School has found a unique way to help students with critical language acquisition needed for academic success.

The school has created specialized a play space where students can speak their native languages, while also building their English language skills.

Suzanne Chevalier, an English language learner teacher, said Reiche has a lot of newcomers and the unique play area was created to give students a chance to celebrate and hang on to their native language, while being exposed to “good English language models.”

Each play session is supervised by a bilingual volunteer.

Reiche offers sessions for kids in kindergarten through second grade in Portuguese, Spanish and French. Chevalier said the school wants to expand the program to more languages and more grades in the upcoming academic year.

The pilot, she said, has been so successful that students are requesting to be part of the program. However, the play space is open only to students school leaders have identified as needing the extra help the most.

She said the play area, which is inside the school, is “very intentionally designed” and since the space opened last fall “we’ve seen really positive growth” in the students, who are now speaking English more frequently.

Meg Young is one of the volunteers. She spends two hours every Wednesday and Thursday working with kids whose native language is Portuguese. Young has family in Brazil and lived in the country for three years, so she’s comfortably fluent in Portuguese.

Young, who spent part of a recent morning helping a first-grader assemble a Lego toy, said it’s been “really fun to see the growth in their language skills and their relationships with each other. … They’re really growing by leaps and bounds. It’s so gratifying.”

Renee Bourgoine-Serio, one of three lead teachers at Reiche, said 30 students participate in the program, with groups meeting twice a week at the same time with the same volunteer to help the kids build relationships and feel comfortable.

Portuguese, French and Spanish were chosen for the pilot because those are the three most commonly spoken native languages for incoming students at Reiche.

Many of the Portuguese speakers come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo or from Angola, Chevalier said. The French speakers are also from the Congo, along with the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Rwanda. The Spanish speakers are mostly from Central America.

Chevalier said the native language play space has freed up the participating students to “truly be themselves.” She said they tend to be more reserved and shy in mainstream settings, but through the playgroups the students are “starting to take risks in English, which is great to see.”

While it’s important for the students to improve their English-speaking skills, she said, it’s also vitally important that they retain the ability to speak their native language. It’s hoped they’ll grow up multilingual.

Chevalier said studies show being multilingual has many cognitive benefits.

The play area has also been furnished with bilingual books and posters, math problems, a puppet theater, and toys and games that encourage the use of fine motor skills.

Reiche received financial support from the Annetta Weatherhead Fund to purchase key materials, according to Bourgoine-Serio.

She said students are allowed to select which activities they would like to engage in during the play sessions and then they just have conversations with each other and the bilingual volunteers.

On a recent day, two students used the puppet theater to entertain the others in their playgroup, having the puppets speak almost entirely in English.

“We are incredibly excited to have launched this pilot project this year,” Bourgoine-Serio said. “The response from both volunteers and students has been wonderful.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 780-9097 or [email protected]. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Lohany Cassanguir, 8, a student at Reiche Elementary School in Portland, uses a puppet during a recent native language play session. The hope is that the play space will help her retain her ability to speak Portuguese, and improve her English.

Victoria Valentina Castro, left, and Ivone Matusilua Luzito use dolls to communicate during a recent native language play session at Reiche Elementary School in Portland’s West End.

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