Teaching Spanish to White Kids Is All the Rage -- Even in Mexican-Bashing Arizona

You'd better not dare speak a word of English in Ana Contreras' kindergarten classroom.

On a warm day in late October, students line up outside the door. MacBook in hand, Contreras greets her charges as they enter: "Hola, señor! Hola, señora!"

Everybody giggles as the dozen-plus kids take their places on the carpet in front of the calendar — all wrinkled khakis, damp ponytails, and white knee socks, eyes on the teacher. Contreras is the kind of kindergarten teacher little boys and girls remember forever: super-kind and just as pretty, with twinkly brown eyes and a big purple flower tucked in her shiny black hair. She takes attendance on the computer.

"Blake, Kimberly — aquí, aquí. Arriba!"

Everyone stretches. It smells like kindergarten in here — a mixture of pee, crayons, and hand-sanitizer. And it looks like kindergarten, too. But all in Spanish. On every wall, every white board, Spanish vocabulary words, aphorisms, cultural references. A bulletin board announces it's Octubre with pictures and words: lechuza (owl), gato (cat), araña (spider), and, of course, jackolanter.

After a discussion about keeping one's hands to oneself, it's calendar time. The days are counted down in Spanish.

The classroom phone rings, and Contreras answers in Spanish. She pauses for a moment, smiles, then gently reminds the front office that she's not to speak English in front of the children.

The confusion is understandable. Typically, in Arizona, teachers are forbidden from speaking Spanish in the classroom — not English.

But this is not a hippy-dippy public school in some progressive, liberal state. It's not an expensive private school in a rich suburb. It's not in Mexico. It's a middle-class public school in Central Phoenix, and the only reason Ana Contreras is allowed to speak in her oft-maligned native tongue is because when school started six weeks earlier, none of these kids spoke a word of Spanish. Today, they are nodding, smiling, and testing their accents. Making their parents proud.

In Arizona, folks may not much like living in a border state, but more and more, there's talk that our kids need to be a part of the global society. Our English-speaking kids, anyway. Turns out, it's relatively inexpensive and easy to teach Spanish to kindergartners. And it builds brainpower.

It also builds student enrollment.

If Squaw Peak Traditional Academy is any indication, Spanish immersion just might be the thing that saves Arizona's public schools.

It began one Saturday morning in the spring of 2010. Another ballet mom asked whether I thought it would be okay if she stuck a flier on the bulletin board at the studio where our kids take dance. I shrugged. Sure, what's it for?

I didn't know this mom, Amy McSheffrey, very well, but I liked her. She seemed smart. Still, I thought she was crazy when she told me she was helping recruit for a Spanish-immersion program at her kids' elementary school, Squaw Peak.

Good luck with that, I thought, smiling politely, helping her find a thumbtack.

First off, Squaw Peak didn't have such a great reputation, though it's in a great location — just six blocks west of La Grande Orange and Postino, the gourmet grocery and wine bar that have managed to do what no one in Phoenix has ever done: create a sense of community. LGO is in a pocket just west of Arcadia, south of Paradise Valley, and east of the Biltmore, a sort of no-man's land that's suddenly become the place to buy a ranch-style fixer-upper (or even a tear-down), so you can ride bikes with the kids to get breakfast on Saturday mornings and meet your girlfriends for sangria on a Tuesday night.

But from everything I knew, the folks in that neighborhood were sending their kids to Hopi Elementary in the Scottsdale School District, to the Madison public schools in North Central Phoenix, to Catholic schools, to charters. Not to Squaw Peak. The McSheffreys were the only ones I knew at Squaw Peak, where enrollment had declined so sharply, I'd heard, that they were down to one class per grade.

And Spanish immersion? Here? I had friends who'd put their kids in intensive Spanish classes at school, but that was in northern California. Jan Brewer had just signed Senate Bill 1070. Multiculturalism was hardly in vogue in Arizona in 2010.

So imagine my surprise when Amy McSheffrey messaged me on Facebook a few months later. School was about to start, and the immersion program was a go. In fact, Squaw Peak had enjoyed such great response that it'd added another first-grade class and two kindergarten sections. People were pulling their kids out of the fancy schools to attend.

Documentary filmmakers are tripping all over themselves to get into charter schools and tell those success stories; you can fill your Netflix queue with movies about admission lotteries and college-level math classes.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.