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Team builds bridges

(Nov. 3, 2003)   —   Forthe parents of 40 Snow Hill Primary kindergartners,Los Puentesis a way their children can become proficient in both English and Spanish by the time they leave elementary school.

For the team of East Carolina University professors who developed the dual-language immersion program,Los Puentes, or Bridges, is a creative approach to embrace the region's growing Spanish-speaking population and a new way to bring multiculturalism into the classroom.

"ECU has had a working relationship with Greene County Schools and I've been very interested in Latino transmigration patterns," Rebecca Torres, an ECU geography professor, said. "I'm interested in their level of connectivity in the community and their networks back home."

Torres' interest in migratory trends led her to consider the effects of North Carolina's recent Hispanic population boom and how it reshapes the classroom.

"We approached the school system about doing research with them. We wanted to approach it, not just as an applied research project but also as something that could actually do something to help the school," she said.

Last summer, Torres, whose son is a student in the classroom, received the support of Snow Hill parents and administrators as well as the Greene County School District. Armed with $65,000 in seed money from a Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation of Winston-Salem grant, the program was launched with the opening of school in August.

From 1990 to 2000, U.S. Census figures show North Carolina saw a 394 percent increase in its Hispanic population. While diverse populations are typically considered to be an urban phenomenon, this is not the case in North Carolina. Greene County, one of Eastern North Carolina's many rural counties, saw an 800 percent increase in its Hispanic population in the same 10-year span. More than 20 percent of Greene County Schools' students are Hispanic.

"Programs like this have been running in urban areas, but it's not been looked at with rural schools and the challenges they have there," said Torres.

The Snow Hill project is the first rural school to offer Spanish-English immersion classrooms, and the third in the state, after Raleigh and Chapel Hill school districts, she said. Throughout their entire elementary school education, the children will have two classrooms (a Spanish and an English classroom) and have two teachers.

Three months intoLos Puentesand already the children in Maria Elena Castaño's kindergarten class at Snow Hill Primary are speaking and learning in Spanish. For some of them, it's the language they know best. For others, Spanish is a whole new language. Castaño, who taught primary school in her native Colombia for more than a decade, said she is excited to be a part of such an innovative program.

"I enjoy this class and I love teaching the children. I am very surprised, listening to them. Everyone is learning very fast," she said. Dozens of grant-funded Spanish-language children's books, as well as posters, the days of the week and other learning materials help Castaño provide students with a true immersion in the Spanis


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