Lyseth Elementary’s Spanish Immersion Program started with a class of kindergartners in 2014 and now includes more than 100 K-5 students. Courtesy photo

PORTLAND — Lyseth Elementary School Principal Lenore Williams didn’t quite know what to think when the idea of a Spanish language immersion program was proposed at her school in 2014.

The proposition, spearheaded by former Superintendent Emmanuel Chaulk and Grace Valenzuela, then the district’s director of English language development and world language programs, seemed to Williams to be too daunting. Now Williams can’t imagine the school without the program.

Almost six years later and after expansion of the program include more than 100 students across all grades, Lyseth has been named the Ministry of Education,  Embassy of Spain’s 2020 Elementary School of the Year.

Lyseth Elementary School has been named the 2020 Elementary School of the Year by the Embassy of Spain’s Ministry of Education. File photo

“I am very proud to be a part of it,” Williams said at a virtual Board of Education meeting April 28 when the award was  announced. “I really think it has been a highlight of my professional career.”

Carlos Gomez, the district’s director of language development, said the award came at the perfect time.

“It came a couple of weeks into the remote learning,” Gomez said. “It’s been a very challenging time for educators, students and families. Good news like this is always welcomed, but especially at a time like this.”

The Ministry of Education, according to a release from Portland Public Schools, chose Lyseth as the top elementary school from 30 schools across the country, in part, due to “the administrative team’s and staff’s enthusiasm and dedication to the Spanish language and culture.”

The ministry, which is in charge of promoting Spanish language and culture in school systems across the United States and Canada, training Spanish teachers in both countries and managing the English-Spanish bilingual program in Spain,  also highlighted examples of how Spanish language and culture has enveloped the school.

“Its library stands out with plenty of resources for bilingual learning and education, classroom decorations and the Museums of Mexican and Spanish Art, which foster an interest in the culture of Spanish-speaking countries. Spanish signs and posters are visible throughout the school’s common areas,” it said.

“It is not something easily attained and we are incredibly proud of your work,” Superintendent Xavier Botana told program staff during the April 28 meeting.

Through the program, which is taught by educators from Spain and Mexico, students in kindergarten, first and second grade receive Spanish instruction throughout their lessons, but classes like art, music and physical education are taught in English only. By fifth grade, half of the students’ school day is in Spanish.

“As much as possible, we try to make our students aware of English and Spanish differences and similarities,” Gomez said.

Gomez said the program provides a new lens to look at language and culture.

“The biggest advantage is fluency in another language and the opening of other cultures and cultural responsibility, cultural literacy,”  he said.

Now that the first set of students have passed through the program, the plan is to continue language immersion for them at the middle school level.

“We are expanding this to the middle school as the elementary students move to Moore,” Botana told the Forecaster.  “The goal is for them to continue to build their Spanish language proficiency.  We would love to see all of these students continue on to (advanced placement) Spanish in the (high school) and achieve the Seal of Biliteracy before they graduate from high school.”

Gomez said his goal is to have similar language immersion programs in other languages, such as French, Arabic, Somali or Portuguese.

“Why this (program) works so well is because (students) are introduced to language so early and as much as we can replicate it, that would be a good long-term goal,” Gomez said,

That is something the school district is looking into, Botana said.

“We would look at those programs being different from Lyseth’s in that they would be more dual-language programs with a mix of native speakers of the language and native English speakers,” he said. “Those are only conversations at this point in time and there are no definitive plans to get them up and running in the near future.”

The Lyseth Spanish immersion program could next year be the only foreign language program at the upper elementary level. As part of his fiscal year 2021 budget, which is still in draft form, Botana is proposing eliminating  the regular Spanish program for fourth and fifth-grade students across Portland elementary schools.

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