Immersion Program Helps Students Become Fluent in Foreign Language

This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

DES MOINES, Iowa – One metro school wanted to offer an innovative educational experience to students six years ago, and now the experiment is paying off.

It sounds like you're in a foreign language class at St. Anthony's Catholic School in Des Moines, but the fifth graders there are studying a different subject.

"We're doing science. You have to guess the material in it," said student Vinnie Bertagnolli.

Students read, write and speak in a different language.

"Most of it is in Spanish. Only gym, lunch, English language and recess is in English," said Bertagnolli.

He is part of the school's first class to go through the Spanish immersion program. The students started in Kindergarten. We met them in first grade when they were already performing plays in Spanish.

"Well the fifth graders, they're like my babies because they were my first class," said Marisol Guerra.

Guerra is the lead teacher for the Spanish immersion program at St. Anthony's.

A third of the school's 310 students participate. They learn the same curriculum as their peers, but most of it is taught in Spanish.

"Research says at the beginning there is a little lag, but in two years they're caught up and they do as well as the English side, or better. Research says also that a bilingual brain is smarter because it's got to make more connections and more thinking in different languages," said Guerra.

The fifth graders are reaching a milestone. They are now fluent in Spanish and the program will change a little as they move on to sixth grade.

"Religion will still be in Spanish, and then we're going to teach them social studies, the same content they are going to have Spanish language arts that they'll do," said Principal Joe Cordaro.

Science and math will be taught in English, but the goal is to keep the kids fluent and give them an edge in high school and beyond.

Diane Faris, a parent of two students, likes the program.

"It doesn't matter if you go into business or education, wherever you want to go or whatever you want to do. I think having a bilingual skill will benefit them in whatever path they decide to take," Faris said.

St. Anthony's Principal said the school has students from 22 central Iowa zip codes. He says most of those come for the Spanish immersion program.