Where nearly all is taught in Spanish

Mary Withers Bates
Special to The Black Mountain News

It’s the second week of school, and Claudia Castillo’s first-grade class is watching a video about respect.

And they’re listening in Spanish.

The class at W.D. Williams Elementary School started the dual language program last year, as kindergarteners. Now the children are are in their second year, and there is a new class of Spanish-speaking kindergartners.

“I was so impressed by their progress last year,” said kindergarten teacher Sandra Medellin. “Kids who had never spoken Spanish before were reading and writing in Spanish, and they could count to 100 and speak in full sentences by the end of the year.”

W.D. Williams is the fourth school in Buncombe County to offer a dual language program. While the curriculum is the same as other first grade classes, it is taught almost completely in Spanish.

“Twenty-six percent of our student population is Hispanic,” said principal Kimberly Ward. “This is something we wanted to do not only because it has huge academic benefits, but because of the shifting culture of our country. We want to embrace the heritage of our community.”

Students in dual language programs score higher on tests and have better cultural competence, according to research by the National Education Association,

Parents said after a year in the program, they have already seen results.

“He is always singing in Spanish, and when we go out to Mexican restaurants he tries to order in Spanish and can understand what they are saying,” Gretchen Hulgan said about Harrison, her son in the first grade. “They say he’ll be bilingual by the time he goes to high school. It’s amazing.”

About half of the students are native English speakers, and the other half are native Spanish speakers. This gives the native Spanish speakers a chance to be leaders and to help their classmates, Ward said.

The classroom experience also promotes intercultural friendship.

“I like it because some of my friends speak it (Spanish) and I can talk to them,” kindergartener Wyatt Rowe said.

Both of the dual language program teachers at W.D. Williams are from Mexico. They moved to Swannanoa as part of Educational Partners International, a teacher exchange program.

Castillo, the first-grade teacher, said making the transition to the U.S. this year wasn’t easy. She and her husband drove five days from Mexico to Swannanoa with their two children, and when they first arrived they didn’t have a place to live. Other teachers donated furniture, home goods, food and gift certificates to help with the adjustment.