By George Sells
In South St. Louis, a small, but growing Hispanic community is seeing a need met that most people take for granted. There is finally a pre-school where children can learn both the language of their new country and the language spoken at home.
At St. Cecelia’s Catholic Church, long the hub for St. Louis’ Latino community, they have opened what they believe to be the metro area’s first bilingual pre-school. It’s called Hola! Santa Teresita.
“Our idea is to have them speak and read in English and Spanish before they go to school,” Yolanda Diaz, the director of the new school told us.
The need has been evident for some time. Families in St. Cecilia’s Parish, many from Mexico, often come here by way of places like Texas, where the transition to American culture is more gradual. It’s easier with the large Latin American communities there.
Neyra, Nunez, a parent of one of the kids here, says St. Louis is a big change culturally
“In Texas you speak more Spanish than you do here,” she said. “When I arrived here you have to speak English. There are not many people who speak Spanish. It’s really a challenge. It’s different.”
The hope is this pre-school can begin to give children from Spanish speaking homes an equal footing as they begin school. That’s something most here say they haven’t had up to now.
“We’re finding is that many of them are entering into Kindergarten without some of the basic tools of the English language,” parish priest Rev. Anthony Ochoa said.
The school began taking a few kids before the official openind due to neet. There is plenty of that.
“We are doing this for a very few children because their parents have to work,” Diaz said. “And there are some kids that don’t know any English at all. This is their third day and they’re already saying words in English.”
And in just a those few days there was plenty of progress. Kids were heard counting and using basic phrases in both English and Spanish.
Another thing to note: the school is not just for Spanish speakers. Learning a new language can go both ways, as the early arrivals at the school are showing.
“We have six kids, and three of them don’t speak English and three of them don’t speak Spanish,” Diaz said. “So really today we have the exact number and they are playing together.”
Yolanda Diaz knows something about teaching languages. The native of Argentina just retired after 46 years in education. Most recently, she taught at both St. Louis University and Harris-Stowe University. She came to St. Louis as one of the very first foreign exchange students at Kirkwood High School. She believes she can help a lot of underrepresented kids by catching them when they are ripe to learn.
“I thought we really need to teach Spanish and English to the English speaker and the Spanish speaker. So they will really be bilingual. And if we really do it in the early childhood, that’s it. They learn by playing.”
The hope is to eventually fully meet what they describe as a large demand, but resources will play a role in that decision.
“We have the opportunity to grow and that’s going to depend on a number of factors,” Ochoa pointed out. “For the time being it’s going to have to be small because of a lack of space and number of teachers.”
For the kids it’s a chance to have equal footing when they finally walk into a traditional, American kindergarten class. To Diaz, it’s all very simple.
“Their life will be easier,” she said.