Kindergartners counting to 10 — in Spanish

After just a few days at Russell Cave Elementary, kindergartner T.J. Slone can identify several colors and count to 10 — in Spanish.

The 5-year-old is one of 62 kindergartners enrolled in a new dual-language immersion program at Russell Cave. While one class is learning math, science and language arts in English, the other is learning all those concepts in Spanish.

“We're bursting at the seams in these classes.” said Principal Betsy Rutherford, whose grandson, T.J., is enrolled. “I believe in this program.”

Maxwell Elementary was once the district's only Spanish immersion elementary school, offering bilingual education for nearly two decades. But with a 200-child waiting list — only 96 students are accepted each year — the district decided to expand.

While Russell Cave is offering dual-language immersion classes, Liberty Elementary is offering Spanish immersion classes. At Liberty, parents were given the option of enrolling their children in standard kindergarten or the Spanish track.

Two other elementary schools — Booker T. Washington and Harrison — have introduced Spanish this year, but not on an immersion level, said Alicia Vinson, the district's world languages specialist.

Russell Cave officials embraced the immersion program as a way to help its unique student population, of which two-thirds come from Spanish-speaking households. In the last seven years the school's Hispanic population has burgeoned by more than 50 percent.

“Language is a part of their culture, that's who they are,” said Heather Johnston, curriculum coach at the school. “We certainly don't want them to lose that. It's an asset now.”

School officials said the new immersion track has caused more Spanish-speaking parents to become involved in the school and is pushing all students to be more well-rounded.

As students move on to higher grades, the school will hire additional teachers to continue the immersion programs, Rutherford said.

Spanish teacher Jacqueline McNaughton spent six years as a teaching assistant at Maxwell and was so impressed by the immersion model that she went back to school for a degree in elementary education from the University of Kentucky.

She's been a teacher for two years and just began at Russell Cave. She teaches social studies, math, science and reading and writing in Spanish. She said students are more tuned into the concepts of those subjects because they're learning them in two languages.

On Wednesday, during a bathroom break with her students, she broke up an argument with two boys — all in Spanish. The boys didn't understand what McNaughton was saying, but eventually they will, she said.

“They're like little sponges, they just absorb it,” she said. “They keep up with so much.”

Another benefit to the language program:

“It teaches them acceptance,” McNaughton said. “These kids not only get the language, but they get the culture.”