On the Upper West Side, Taking Spanish Baby Steps
NEW YORK SCHOOLS
By SETH KUGEL
A class of 2-year-olds from La Escuelita preschool on the Upper West
Side bundled up and marched outside last Thursday morning, ready to paint
some snow. Their
three teachers insisted that the children ask for their colors in Spanish.
Abe asked for rojo, Allison azul, Hudson verde and Izabella anaranjado,
or orange. Then they set to work spraying the fluffy snowbanks (and a stray
using spritzers bursting with food coloring and water. "Estoy poniendo morado!" Orion said. I'm putting purple!
With all the wildly competitive private preschools in a city with 2.2
million Latinos, a dual-language program specifically designed to teach
children Spanish at the age they
could best absorb it makes sense. But two years ago, Jennifer Friedman and Jennifer Woodruff, then new mothers, tried to find one and could not.
So the two women, both educators, opened La Escuelita (the Little School)
in the renovated basement of a Greek Orthodox church at West 91st Street
and West End
Avenue. The first full session began last fall with 39 students and a waiting list. The school already has more applications than openings for next fall, and it plans to
Last week, at an information session, a room was filled with bilingual
parents, including Latino professionals, parents with Latina nannies and
parents who just thought it
was important for their children to speak Spanish, learning about the school and, in some cases, jockeying shamelessly to impress the directors. (They pick students based
on how dedicated the family is to bilingualism.)
Raising bilingual children in New York is harder than it would seem.
"Knowing another language is seen as a priority in other countries,
but here it's looked down upon, particularly in Spanish," said Ms. Friedman,
a bilingual speech
pathologist who has spoken Spanish to her son since he was born. Children pick up on their parents' linguistic indifference, Ms. Woodruff added, and tilt toward English.
Martha Escobar and Sandor Lehoczky had spoken Spanish to their son,
Orion, as much as possible since his birth, with mixed results. "Before
he started school, if you
spoke to him in Spanish, he would understand but would answer in English," Ms. Escobar said. Her theory: he heard other children speaking English, so he did, too. After
one month at La Escuelita, she said, he started responding in Spanish.
That is undoubtedly because using Spanish at La Escuelita brings smiles
and praise from the teachers. When Loreto Perez, who is from Spain, first
started teaching her
class of 3- and 4-year-olds, she was frustrated: many of the children did not understand anything she said. But that changed quickly.
And the first thing many learned, before hola and adios? "Es mío!" she said. It's mine.