“I get to teach not just what the textbook says, but I get to bring in food and culture. I get to go much deeper.” Laura hidalgo, Westdale Middle School Spanish immersion teacher
Five years ago, the Baton Rouge school system extended its most popular foreign language program into Westdale Middle School, and now the small program is beginning to get recognition.
Most recently, it earned one of the top School of the Year academic excellence awards from the Spanish Ministry of Education. Westdale Middle Principal Sherry Brock and Clare Peterson, coordinator of the school’s magnet program, collected the award at a September ceremony in Washington, D.C.
The award brings with it $5,000, a one-week course in Spanish language and literature for one Westdale Middle School teacher, a set of classroom materials and two licenses to online courses offered through a nonprofit connected with the Spanish government.
Immersing children in foreign languages, while still rare, has become more of an option in Louisiana for parents interested in having bilingual or multilingual children.
In Baton Rouge, elementary-age children have long had Baton Rouge Foreign Language Academic Immersion school, formerly South Boulevard Elementary School. BR FLAIM instructs children in all core subjects in Spanish or French. The school, however, tops out at fifth grade.
Enter Westdale Middle School’s Foreign Language Immersion Program. The program has about 100 students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades, split roughly evenly between those taking Spanish or French. Westdale’s program is open to BR FLAIM children as well as to children enrolled in other foreign language schools in town — such as the private Baton Rouge International School.
Like BR FLAIM, Westdale Middle School’s immersion students are taught core subjects by teachers speaking Spanish or French. Math is the only exception, but Principal Brock said she’s considering finding Spanish- or French-speaking teachers who can teach the multiple levels of math required in middle school.
The students in the program spend the bulk of their day in four classrooms in two temporary buildings in the rear of the large middle school. The classrooms were installed in 2006 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to help the school handle children displaced by the storm.
Laura Hidalgo is a typical teacher in the program. A native of Costa Rica, Hidalgo loves the chance to mix language and culture in her class, which she says are closely related.
“I get to teach not just what the textbook says, but I get to bring in food and culture,” said Hidalgo, who teaches Spanish language classes. “I get to go much deeper.”
Spanish suffuses her classroom. Her students routinely do presentations in Spanish for their classmates. The walls are covered with Spanish. One section is filled with a typical assignment: Students writing about their experiences during Hurricane Isaac in August, but in Spanish of course.
The emphasis on writing is unmistakable. Westdale Middle School teachers say their students arrive quite versed in speaking a foreign language after years of instruction in elementary school, but their writing often needs work.
“Writing is the most difficult skill,” teacher Lilian Salazar said.
Salazar’s English classes are unique.
“I teach English, but I teach it in Spanish,” she said.
Finding good teaching materials in Spanish and French is always a challenge, but Peterson, the program’s coordinator, prides herself on being resourceful.
“Anything they’ve asked for, we’ve been able to find it,” Peterson said.
It’s easier to buy materials if they come from an American publisher, and some materials, such as lessons on Louisiana history, come only in English, she acknowledged. Consequently, her teachers sometimes have to translate English texts into Spanish or French ahead of their lessons, she said.
Westdale Middle School students versed in foreign languages are set apart from other students.
“I’ll be in the neighborhood and just start talking to friends in French and they’re like, ‘What?’” eighth-grader Tabitha Lawrence said.
Some children have parents who speak Spanish or French, but most don’t.
“My mom always tries to speak the language,” eighth-grader Spencer Brewer said. “But she’s not very good.”
Knowing Spanish helps Madeline Anderson, a seventh-grader, with her vocabulary.
“Sometimes, there’s a word I don’t know (in English), but it looks like a word in Spanish,” Anderson said.
Brewer said he stands apart knowing two foreign languages — he takes classes in both French and Spanish.
“Whenever you tell someone you speak another language, they say, ‘Say something,’” Brewer said.
While many of the students speak English in conversation, knowing another language comes in handy “usually for like telling secrets to each other,” eighth-grader Claire Shihadeh said.
Once students finish at Westdale Middle, they will transition into a traditional high school, though they typically come to high school with multiple credits in Spanish or French.
Westdale Middle’s program continues to evolve.
Peterson said high school foreign language teachers have asked Westdale to incorporate more grammar instruction into its program, which Westdale is trying to do. In a similar vein, Peterson said she is working with BR FLAIM to incorporate more writing and grammar into its program as well.
Hidalgo said knowing two languages is more and more crucial in today’s job market.
“The kids have an advantage in the marketplace,” she said.
And knowing multiple languages helps them stand out, Hidalgo said.
“The kids are so proud of being bilingual,” she said. “It makes a great impression.”