Phillips Avenue kindergartners taking classes in English & Spanish

VERA CHINESE PHOTO | Kindergarten teachers Kimberly Benkert and Erica Howard-Peralta sing Jingle Bells with students in one of two bilingual classrooms at Phillips Avenue Elementary School.

In a kindergarten class at Phillips Avenue Elementary School, 20 or so students are sitting crossed-legged on the floor, singing “Jingle Bells” as the song’s lyrics appear on a screen at the front of the classroom.

The children recite the classic holiday tune in class just as millions of other American children have before them. But the customary second verse sounds a bit different.

“Cascabel, cascabel, suena el cascabel,” the tiny students sing in unison.

These children are part of two inaugural two-way language immersion classes in the Riverhead School District. The classes, both at Phillips Avenue, include about equal numbers of native English speakers and native Spanish speakers, and students are taught in both languages throughout the day. Reading instruction, however, is given in the child’s native language.

Kimberly Benkert and her teaching partner, Erica Howard-Peralta, teach the two classes, which involve a combined total of about 49 children. Ms. Howard-Peralta teaches the Spanish section and Ms. Benkert the English section.

If all goes well, the school will not only offer the class next year to a new crop of kindergartners but will also continue it for this year’s students, who will have moved on to first grade. School officials hope to continue the program at least until the fourth grade. A bilingual certified first-grade teacher has already expressed interest in the program, school officials said.

Students sing Jingle Bells in one of two bilingual classrooms at Phillips Avenue Elementary School Tuesday.

“Each year they will be doing more in their second language,” Ms. Howard-Peralta said of the students.

On a recent morning, students in Ms. Howard-Peralta’s class were learning about colors, shapes and the calendar — or calendario — in Spanish. Ms. Benkert’s students were simultaneously performing similar exercises in English.

Later in the day, the students would switch teachers. The children do not lose any instruction time because they are performing the same exercises that are performed in many kindergarten classrooms.

“The content they’re teaching is the same as you’d see in other kinds of classes,” said Elizabeth Scaduto, director of the district’s English as a Second Language and bilingual programs. “It just happen to be in two languages for these kids.”

Ms. Scaduto said research shows this type of program benefits both sets of students.

“It’s very hard to learn something in a foreign language that you’re learning for the first time,” said Ms. Howard-Peralta, who is originally from Maine but studied in Argentina in high school.

And because many Spanish words have Latin roots, it could mean higher SAT scores when college prep time comes.

“Those kids are much stronger academically,” Ms. Howard-Peralta said. “Both groups will have stronger vocabularies.”

School officials also hope the program will make the students better global citizens.

“What this program has provided for us is for our English-speaking students to understand another culture,” said Phillips Avenue principal Debra Rodgers. She attributed the success of the program so far to the support of superintendent Nancy Carney, support from the community and the dedication of Ms. Benkert and Ms. Howard-Peralta.
Ms. Rodgers estimates that 44 percent of the students and staff at Phillips Avenue are Latino.

She also noted that because the teachers were already employed at the school, the program does not carry an additional cost to taxpayers.

The teachers have also noticed a difference in how the students interact socially and outside the classroom. Ms. Benkert said in years past she has frequently seen an English-speaking student ask a bilingual student to relay a message to a Spanish-speaking student. But in this class, she said, it’s not uncommon for a native English- or Spanish-speaker to instead ask a bilingual student for the words to directly communicate in their classmate’s language.

“What I see is the children are using each other as dictionaries or resources,” Ms. Howard-Peralta said.

“It’s kind of like getting rid of the great divide,” Ms. Benkert added.

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