Learning Spanish And Inclusion As A Third Grader

Aug 16, 2019

In Washoe County, school started this week and some classrooms are back to learning in Spanish. Kaleb Fikes is one of those students. KUNR’s Stephanie Serrano visited his family to learn more about their experience with bilingual immersion.

Kaleb Fikes is a fifth-generation Nevadan and, fun fact: His great-great-grandfather was once a Reno city councilman--the one who pushed to make Nevada Day a paid holiday.

This school year, Kaleb is a third-grader at Donner Springs Elementary School.

“When we moved here, it was funny because everyone was like, ‘Oh, you're zoned for Donner Springs, and it’s a Title 1 school.’ My first thoughts were, ‘We should go somewhere else, honestly,’” said Megan Fikes, Kaleb’s mother.

A school is classified as Title 1 according to the amount of low-income students, which is based on how many students receive free or reduced lunch. Luckily for them, they didn’t go anywhere, Megan said.

Kaleb has participated in Donner Springs’ immersion program for the past three years. He is learning to speak, read and write in Spanish. 

The students are taught in Spanish through the classroom content 50% of the day. Kaleb is learning math and science entirely in Spanish and, yes, even his homework is in the language.

I'm more math [and] science-minded, so I can usually look at the problem and understand what they're trying to do,” said Kaleb’s father, John Fikes, “but to a point I'll ask him what the words say, and if it's still not clear what it is, I Google Translate.”

Kaleb is becoming his family’s personal Spanish translator, a burden most children face when growing up bilingual. John says Kaleb is the only grandchild pursuing a new language, so at home they support him by buying Spanish books and watching Spanish cartoons. For both Mom and Dad, they say they owe the program much more because it’s helping strengthen an important family value: inclusivity.

“I just think that it's making it more normalized and really showing people that it's not a big deal if someone is from a different country,” Megan said. “I like the fact that in the immersion program there's the kids that only speak Spanish and there's the kids that only speak English, and they're coming together and they're able to have these experiences together. It teaches them camaraderie and empathy.”

“When you're immersed in the program, it removes a lot of stereotypes that you would have in a separatist sort of environment, so if you went to school with everybody that looked like you or everybody that talked like you, you might be less inclined to make friends with someone who doesn't look like you or doesn't talk like you,” John explained. “So, you are kind of put into a program [and] shown that humans are humans, and you can be friends with anybody.”

While the parents are on board, they’ve seen some resistance within their circle.

“There's a few that find it funny because they think we're trying to force the Spanish language to be a part of the American culture, but I see it all as positive for the people in the program,” John said. “There's a lot of benefits: it opens a lot of pathways in your mind, you think differently, you learn differently, but I think the majority of the family is supportive.”

Kaleb’s cheeks get rosy and his smile turns timid when his family asks him to speak in Spanish at home, but when they’re out and about, he picks up on Spanish conversations all around him. Kaleb consistently receives comments on how natural his Spanish accent is and his strong conversational skills.

Last school year, Kaleb’s second-grade classroom planted zucchini plants, which he then replanted at home. Now his grandfather is teaching him a few gardening tips.

Kaleb is just one of many monolingual English speakers learning Spanish in the program. Some of his classmates are already bilingual, and others are English Language Learners, known as ELL.

Cheryl Urow was a dual language teacher for many years in Chicago. Illinois is a mandated bilingual state, which means if any school has more than 20 ELL students who speak the same non-English language, bilingual education is required. She is also the manager and co-founder of The Center for Teaching for Biliteracy. Since the year 2000, she says she’s seen an increase of these types of programs, but obstacles remain.

“I think the same challenges that the nation is facing politically--xenophobia, reactionary politics-- [and] the more mundane kinds of things [like] testing, getting enough teachers,” Urow said.

According to the United States Census Bureau, as of 2011, nearly 60 million people speak a language other than English in the U.S., and almost two-thirds of that population speaks Spanish.