Delaware kindergartners learn Chinese and Spanish

 McIlvaine kindergarteners learn to write in Mandarin Chinese (Shana O'Malley/for NewsWorks)

McIlvaine kindergarteners learn to write in Mandarin Chinese (Shana O'Malley/for NewsWorks)

Delaware officials are expanding the state’s language immersion initiative.

On Tuesday, Gov. Jack Markell joined Ramon Gil-Casares, Spanish ambassador to the United States, to announce the addition of English-Spanish kindergarten classes at McIlvaine Early Childhood Center in Magnolia.

The kindergarten-only school serves more than 500 children and already has two English-Mandarin Chinese speaking classes.

Two years ago, the state started the World Language Expansion Initiative at various school districts across Delaware. Students in the language-immersion classes spend half of their day learning in English and the other half learning in either Mandarin Chinese or Spanish.

More than 800 students across the state are enrolled in the programs this year. Approximately 1,500 are expected to participate in the upcoming school year.

Markell said the bilingual program will help students compete for future jobs in the global economy.

“The question is, what kind of opportunity will there be for our children 15 to 20 years from now, and we need to be thinking that far ahead,” Markell said. “Sometimes in government and politics it’s about what’s going to happen tomorrow and next week but we need, and certainly schools need, to be thinking way down the road.”

Approximately 700 Spanish firms currently invest in the United States, creating 80,000 direct jobs and more than 300,000 indirect jobs. Casares said those numbers are expected to grow in the next few decades.

Markell and Casares signed a memorandum that will continue an educational partnership program between Spain and Delaware that allows the state to recruit top-notch Spanish teachers.

“We know that great teachers are the most important factor in all of our children’s academic success and that is equally true, if not more so, for the students who have taken on the additional challenge of learning another language along with everything else that is expected of them in elementary school,” Markell said. “That’s why it’s important to have high quality teachers in our world language immersion programs. I’m thrilled to have the ambassador and councilor of education here to sign the memorandum of understanding to renew our partnership with Spain.”

Maria Leria, a native of Spain, has taught English-Spanish kindergarten for the last two years at William C. Lewis Dual Language Immersion Elementary School in Wilmington.

“It is great to see how the 5-year-old kids come in August, they don’t even know how to hold a pencil or write their name,” Leria said. “After one year, they are able to read and write in Spanish and I can have conversations with them.”

She said students also expand their English vocabulary.

“They’re bilingual in one year,” she said.

In addition to the English-Spanish kindergarten at McIlvaine, Markell also announced on Tuesday that the Appoquinimink School District and the Brandywine School District will add language immersion programs in the 2015-2016 school year.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.