WIMAUMA — The U.S.-born daughter of Mexican immigrants, Carmen Bravo was raised to talk in Spanish as well as English because her parents wanted her to stay connected to her cultural roots.
“Growing up speaking Spanish and English at the same time helped me have a broader vision of the world around me," she said.
In a different place and time, Bravo has raised her own son Joshua Valdez to speak English. But she came to realize that she wanted that broader vision for him, too.
Bravo, 34, of Wimauma, enrolled 7-year-old Joshua in a program at Reddick Elementary School where students are taught all their subjects — including math, science and art — in both English and Spanish. A different teacher handles instruction in each language.
The lessons they learn transcend language.
“Our students are not only excited about learning to read, write and speak in two languages but also to interact with diverse cultures," said Melissa Morgado, who supervises the program for the Hillsborough County School District. "We feel we’ve found the secret key to unlock the doors of success in their futures.”
The dual language immersion program began in mid-2017 at Bellamy and Crestwood elementary schools, two largely Hispanic campuses in Town 'N Country. The idea was billed as a long-term initiative to give English speakers a broad command of English and Spanish by the time they finish fifth grade.
Since then, enrollment has doubled each year.
The program launched with four teachers and 72 students. Now, there are 34 teachers and some 700 students and the program has expanded to five Hillsborough County elementary schools — Cannella, Reddick, Deer Park, Ruskin and Westchase.
Next year, enrollment is expected to grow to 1,000.
The program stimulates kids from an early age to engage in all their subjects as it improves memory and encourages creativity, said Lorimar Guadalupe, a second-grade teacher at Reddick Elementary. Guadalupe teaches two classes with a total of 42 students, nine of them through distance learning.
“The difference is very big,” said Guadalupe, 37, who was born in Puerto Rico. “These students, for example, instead of learning 100 words, they are going to have to learn 200 words because we are teaching two languages at the same time.”
Students develop a deeper interest in reading, knowledge of the history and culture of Latin American countries, she said.
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Guadalupe and a team of teachers organized a week of activities celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month, Sept. 15 through Oct. 15. They shared traditional dishes from Mexico, El Salvador and Peru and met via the internet with students in the Dominican Republic, Chile and Colombia.
“It is a virtual trip that motivates them to continue investigating and learning,” Guadalupe said.
When they maintain that interest clear through high school, Hillsborough students can earn an academic award called a Seal of Biliteracy — part of a nationwide program designed to encourage people to learn a second language.
Only 20 percent of Americans can converse in more than one language, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In Europe, the figure is 54 percent, with 25 percent able to converse in at least two additional languages, according to the European Union.
In the Hillsborough school district, 71 percent of students speak only English, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Another 24 percent speak English “very well” and 5 percent speak it “less than very well.” Students designated as English language learners receive instruction through methods other than the dual language program.
School district officials estimate that more than half the students enrolled in the dual language program are Hispanic.
Reddick Elementary second-grader Nicholas Masson, 8, has grown more curious about Latin culture as a student in the Wimauma school’s program, said his mother Suzanne Masson. It has special value in households like hers, she said, where Spanish is not spoken.
“When we heard about the impact and nature of this program, we didn’t think twice. We loved it,” said Masson, 48.
Nicholas finds Spanish hard, but he likes the challenge. Sometimes, his classes in English are too easy, he said.
“We switch English and Spanish classes every week. It helps me feel like I could go to different countries and speak that language.”
The program is growing as the community’s demographics change, said Rosa Chamizo, a Cuban native and a third-grade dual language instructor at Bellamy Elementary.
“It’s a worthwhile academic effort as the Hispanic presence grows in the country,” Chamizo said.
Chamizo, 52, retired from teaching after more than 25 years, nearly a decade of it in New Jersey public schools. A year ago, she came to Florida and the dual language program helped inspire her to return to the classroom.
“When I heard about this program I realized that this was the opportunity I was looking for,” she said. “Seeing the children learning in English and Spanish is just fantastic.”