Kindergartners in Milton Elementary's Spanish immersion class started their school day in November with a song.
While the class sang in unison about a tree losing its leaves, one classmate stood next to a tree decal and defoliated it one leaf at a time.
“Singing is fun,” said kindergartner Deja Brittingham with a shy smile.
Deja is one of 44 kindergartners at Milton Elementary who is enrolled in the Cape Henlopen School District's introductory Spanish immersion program. A similar program is held at H.O. Brittingham Elementary.
About 30 percent of teacher Yazmin Kuball's morning class are native Spanish speakers. In the afternoon, her students switch classes with an English-speaking class across the hallway.
Enrollment was new for kindergartners this year with the goal to create an immersion pathway through 12th grade, said Donna Kolakowski, supervisor of elementary education.
Kolakowski said dual-language programs are helpful to students later in life when they look for jobs. Research has also shown that students enrolled in dual-language programs score higher on tests than students in regular classes, she said.
“Cognitive abilities continue to grow because you have worked that side of your brain,” she said, referring to the left side, or analytical side of the brain.
In Kuball's morning class, her students were busy working their brains after splitting into five work groups. At one station, kindergartner Theresa Ragone matched items on a Spanish worksheet.
“My favorite word is hojas,” she said, her blue eyes widening while she tried to remember what it means.
Classmate Eddy Monterosso quietly piped in with the answer. “It means leaf,” he said.
Other students worked on iPads, and free play with blocks was popular for kids who had finished their work.
Kuball and paraeducator Jhoana Pazmino each manned a table with crafts and writing activities.
Since the beginning of the school year, Kuball said, students have increased both their vocabularly and understanding.
“They're learning a language they've never heard of before,” she said about the native English-speaking students.
Both ladies speak only Spanish to the students. They no longer have to use hand gestures or body language to convey what they are saying, Kuball said.
Pazmino, who describes her role as helping reinforce the daily Spanish lesson, said students learn more and more each day. Already, she said, they know about 50 words, greetings in Spanish and phrases such as “Can I go to the bathroom?” or “Can I get a drink?”
English-speaking students don't yet respond in Spanish when an instructor gives them directions in Spanish, but they understand.
“That'll come,” said Kuball.
For native Spanish speakers, Pazmino said she primarily helps them with their writing.
“They know how to say it, but not write it,” she said.
Classmates Fiona Fisher, Elizabeth Mills and Deja Brittingham were a happy trio as they sat on a rug copying song lyrics into a notebook.
“When I'm done I'll be able to sing it to my friends and family,” Fiona said.
On Nov. 16, the Cape Henlopen school board approved expanding the immersion program to all five Cape elementaries. The final decision, which the district is waiting to hear, lies in the state’s hands.