It’s Wednesday morning, and about 20 kindergartners are gathered around teacher Miriam Hernandez, listening intently as she reads them a picture book about horses.
It would seem like any other kindergarten if it weren’t for Hernandez, 33, conducting her entire lesson in Spanish. After reading the book, she stands at a white board and asks the children to recall words from the story they just heard, words like caballos, corren, hierbas, and caminar.
When they occasionally dissolve into chattering, she draws their attention back with a simple “ojos aquí.”
For 10 years, Hernandez has taught kindergartners at Gregorio Esparza Elementary, part of Northside Independent School District. The school was one of the first two in the district to roll out the dual-language English-Spanish program in 2000.
Since then, the district has expanded the program to 10 elementary schools, along with some dual-language courses at two of its middle schools. Next year, the program will further expand to four more elementary schools for kindergarten and first grade.
Unlike English-as-a-second-language (ESL) programs, dual-language education puts native English speakers and native Spanish speakers in the same classroom, where they learn each other’s’ native tongues and experience different cultures.
Besides teaching them another language, research has shown that this model creates cognitive benefits for children, said Victor Raga, a former school principal who became Northside’s bilingual and ESL director in 2017.
“If you’re an English-speaking student, you are completely immersed into Spanish,” Raga said. “It goes beyond just learning the language, it’s also exercising the brain to problem-solve, to make inferences.”
In Hernandez’s classroom, signs and pictures on the walls surround the children with labels in English and Spanish for days of the week, seasons, numbers, and colors.
After doing the word recall exercise, she breaks them up in to small groups where they draw pictures of horses and write a few sentences in Spanish about what they drew. They talk to each other in a mix of both languages.
“They kind of help each other out,” Hernandez said in an interview. “That’s why the program has been so successful, because they learn off of each other.”
For her part, Hernandez speaks English when she teaches social studies and science, toward end of the school day. She has a sign on her door that she switches depending on whether it’s “English time or Spanish time.”
Northside’s dual-language program starts students with 90 percent Spanish-language instruction and 10 percent in English in kindergarten. By fifth grade, it gradually evens out until classes are taught half in English, half in Spanish.
Most students are “really well-prepared by the time they do get to that 50-50” said Monica Willis, a language support teacher at Ezparza.
“It’s not a jolt into either language because they’ve been able to transfer all those skills that they’ve learned in Spanish to English, or vice versa.”
Willis works with students who need a little extra support in groups of no more than six. Much of her work involves helping them build vocabulary, often using pictures, rhymes, and songs. She’ll help them learn cognates – words in both language that sound similar because of a common origin – as well as false cognates.
“We want to make sure they’re not saying embarasada when they’re embarrassed,” she said. “Because that means ‘pregnant.’”
Hernandez, who grew up in Uvalde in a Spanish-speaking home, said she could have benefited from such a program as a child, including learning a more formal register of Spanish.
“It was just what I was taught at home, and what I was taught at home wasn’t as it would be in a school-based environment,” she said.
Hernandez has two children going through Northside’s dual-language program, a first-grader and a seventh-grader. She thinks it “would be very beneficial” if all kindergarten classes were in both languages but at the same time recognized that “it’s not for everyone.” Support from parents is critical, she said.
“Some kids get very frustrated, but that’s where the parents come in,” she said. “Without the parents, this program wouldn’t be successful.”
Josie Vazquez, who works in the school’s front office, has a son in Hernandez’s kindergarten class. He’s her fifth child to go through Northside’s program. Her oldest son, now 24, was a member of the first class of kindergartners ever enrolled in the program.
“It’s a great program,” Vazquez said, explaining that even though some of her family members speak Spanish, her children would not have nearly as strong of a grasp of the language without their elementary school experience.
“I even find myself learning at the same time,” she said.