COLUMBIA, SC — Dianne Mundo greeted a class of first-graders at Ballentine Elementary School with a cheery “Hola!” on Friday and immediately began immersing her small charges in the building blocks of Spanish.
First there was dancing to Spanish follow-along songs where the kids clapped, touched the ground and then jumped back up. There were lessons in numbers – “uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco” – and colors, “rojo, blanco, and cafe.”
There was the Spanish version of “Hot Potato” where the laughing youngsters quickly passed a stuffed dog, “perro, perro!” and a bear, “osito, osito!” around the circle.
Ballentine is one of 10 elementary schools in Lexington-Richland 5 that offer a one-day a week class in Spanish to students in kindergarten through 5th grade. Seven Oaks Elementary offers German and River Springs Elementary offers French.
Mundo, a native of Puerto Rico who has taught in the district for 15 years, wishes that language immersion and the excitement that accompanies learning a foreign language could take place five days a week.
“We would love to have them more,” she said of her students. “That is the only way you can really learn.”
Public school administrators across the Midlands understand the importance of immersion in a foreign language and most offer daily language study at the middle and high school level.
But Lexington 1 is the only district that is embarking on language immersion projects programs at both the elementary and middle school levels.
“There are two things we are doing that no one else is doing,” said Lexington 1 spokeswoman Mary Beth Hill.
The most intriguing involves what the district calls “partial immersion classes” that meet every day. Elementary students, who apply for the program through a lottery system, have two subjects in English, then learn math and science in the foreign language.
“She (the teacher) never speaks English to them,” Hill said. “It’s fascinating to watch.” She said those who move to the district are particularly appreciative of the immersion component.
Lexington 1 also has made a foreign language part of the core curriculum at middle schools, a move supported by parents. Lexington 1 grew by 500 students this past year and Hill suggests some of that growth can be attributed to the expanded language programs.
Other districts say their elementary and middle programs are bustling, even if it is not on a daily basis.
In Richland 1, 50 minutes of Spanish or French instruction is taught weekly in grades three-five in all elementary schools.
Middle school students have the option of taking Spanish as well as Chinese, French, German and Latin in certain schools. Richland 1 high schools offer French and Spanish in each school, and some also offer Chinese, German and Latin.
Quin Yuan spends the majority of her time teaching Chinese at Dehrer High School, but for one period a day she goes to Hand Middle School where she teaches a class of eighth graders. She believes learning languages provides students a window to other countries and cultures and a boost in career development.
“It helps them open their eyes in how to interpret another culture and learn about another culture,” Yuan said. She has had a few students go on to major in Chinese in college or use the language instruction as a building block for international business.
“I would suggest to them if you want to do international business or international affairs, the Chinese language is one you cannot avoid,” she said.
In Richland 2, Spanish is offered at all seven middle schools with French offered at Blythewood, Dent and E.L. Wright Middle schools, and Latin at Dent.
Windsor Elementary, which is an International Baccalaureate school, offers Spanish to its K-5 students twice a week, but no other elementary school offers a foreign language.
Middle school students in Lexington-Richland 5 have access to French, Spanish and German. CrossRoads Middle, which houses sixth-grade students only, offers a nine-week course called Introduction to World Languages. Based on Latin, it introduces students to language study through Latin, Spanish, French and German, said district spokeswoman Michelle Foster.
In some smaller Midlands districts, including Lexington 2, Lexington 3 and Kershaw County, foreign language offerings in both middle and elementary remain limited or non-existent.
“This is definitely on our ‘wish list’ once our revenue streams stabilize,” said Kershaw spokeswoman Mary Anne Byrd.
In Lexington 2, offerings are limited to Spanish at one elementary school and one middle school. But the district does have a pilot program at Brookland-Cayce Grammar School No. 1, which provides 25 minutes of instruction three days a week and is studying a “blended virtual model” at the middle school level.
Mundo, the Ballentine teacher, said she believes learning a language is critical in today’s world.
“We are in the 21st century, it’s a global community and we have to prepare our students,” she said.