Like many of his classmates, kindergartner Radley Kopp began the school year with limited knowledge of Spanish. But by the time May rolled around, he could count to 200 in the language and name all the letters of the Spanish alphabet.

“It’s just crazy,” his mother, Molly Kopp, said. “It’s just amazing how much he’s absorbed in such a short time.”

Radley is one of about five dozen students enrolled in the Albany County School District No. 1 Spanish dual-language immersion program. Now wrapping up its first year, the program, approved by the ACSD No. 1 Board of Education in 2016, is designed to help students attain proficiency in English and Spanish.

Dual-immersion students at Spring Creek and Indian Paintbrush elementary schools spend half the day in an English-speaking class and the other half in a Spanish-speaking class. They learn language arts and math concepts in both languages, material that each classroom reinforces.

In April, the School Board approved the program for a second year and hired two new Spanish teachers to continue the program at the first-grade level — one for each school.

“The year has gone really well,” Indian Paintbrush dual-immersion teacher Mariela Trautwein said.

“The kids have worked really hard, the parents are really supportive, and they’ve come a long ways. Back in the beginning of the year, they were just learning the letter sounds, and now they’re reading words and they’re reading stories.”

Making progress

At Spring Creek Elementary School, students in Mary Cruz’s room spent Tuesday afternoon honing their Spanish reading skills. They reviewed common Spanish words on flashcards, such as “tengo,” or “I have,” and “escuela,” or “school,” took turns identifying a series of syllables containing “u” and pored through children’s books in Spanish.

“Escorpión,” one student read confidently from his book — the Spanish word for scorpion. “Estrellas del mar.”

Just down the hall, students in kindergarten teacher Kendra Wright’s classroom also paired up to read books — in English.

“I think they’re truly becoming biliterate and bilingual,” Wright said.

All 31 of their students are slated to continue with the program next school year, and there is already a full kindergarten class list for the program in the fall — 36 students, or 18 in each class. Before starting first grade, the current students will attend a two-day summer school session to refresh their Spanish concepts.

“It’s been really awesome to see their growth over the year and how they’re able to decode independently and they’re using the vocabulary a lot more independently,” Cruz said. “It’s been great to see their growth and them retaining academic skills in both English and Spanish.”

Cruz said she’s made an effort to incorporate cultural activities into the classroom throughout the year — for instance, earlier this month, the students had a Cinco de Mayo celebration where they learned about the history of piñatas and sampled food from a local Mexican restaurant.

“They got to listen to salsa music and were dancing to that,” she said. “I think they really enjoyed that, because a lot of them hadn’t been exposed as much to that.”

Looking ahead

Shortly after the dual-immersion program launched at Indian Paintbrush, Principal Teresa Ross was in the school cafeteria when she heard one student announce she knew all of the numbers in Spanish from 1-10. Ross encouraged the student to say the numbers out loud.

“Pretty soon, both classes at the two tables, they all started chiming in, and some of them went even beyond number 10 in their Spanish speaking skills,” Ross said. “And I was so impressed that this was something that they had done in the first month or two.”

In the months since, Ross said she has received “really good feedback” about the program from parents and students, and she looks forward to seeing the students show continued development in the second year of the program.

“I am really excited about having it again for another year in first grade,” she said. “I’ve been impressed with the level of growth that I’ve seen in the kindergarten students that we’ve had this year, and when I walk into the Spanish speaking side of the DLI program, it amazes me that they can understand everything that she’s telling them in Spanish and respond in Spanish and all of those things.”

Trautwein, who handles the Spanish side of the program, said the students have become very comfortable using Spanish. She often hears students speaking in Spanish on the playground and in the hallway — and even teaching the occasional word to their friends outside the program.

“They’re really retaining it, and they know what it means,” she said.

With the exception of a few students who are moving, all of the currently enrolled students will be continuing with the program next year, and as with Spring Creek, 36 new kindergartners are slated to participate in the fall.

“You have to be really flexible,” said kindergarten teacher Kellen Groshart, who works with the students on the English side of the program. “At the beginning of the year, we had to really figure out our schedule, and we had to change that a couple times just to be able to fit everything in ... but once we finally got that done, it was much easier after that.”

Trautwein said she looked forward to seeing how the incoming first-graders would interact with the new dual-immersion students.

“Now, they’re going to have double the amount of kids who can speak Spanish ... it’ll be interesting to see how that relationship builds,” she said.

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