Throughout New York state, thousands of hard-working seniors marched across graduation stages to accept their high school diplomas this June. But in the Herricks Public School District in Nassau County on Long Island, something particularly special happened. After pioneering a one-of-a-kind Spanish-language immersion program as first-graders, 22 Herricks seniors became the first group to graduate from the initiative in June.
“Many talk about making students college and career ready, but we want to make our students world ready,” explained Francesco Fratto, Herricks’ director of World Languages, Immersion & English as a New Language. First launched as a voluntary option for first-grade students at the start of the 2010 school year, Herricks’ immersion program now starts in kindergarten and offers 48 student slots. Currently 524 of Herricks’ roughly 4,000 students district wide, participate. It’s the only fully immersive, K-12 program offered in New York state.
Fratto joined the district in 2015 to help design a middle school curriculum for the rising elementary immersion students. Since then, he’s worked with grade-level educators to create curricula that stay one step ahead of the inaugural group. The 2022-23 school year will be the first time they won’t have to develop a new immersion curriculum completely from scratch.
Housed at the district’s Denton Avenue Elementary School, the K-5 program is the equivalent of “dropping students off in a Spanish-speaking country,” explained Llilian Vera, Herricks Teachers Association, who teaches third-grade Spanish-language math and science classes. Each grade offers one English and one Spanish teacher. Vera’s kids, like all elementary-level immersion students, follow a split-day routine, spending half the day learning in English, and the other half learning Spanish-language math and science. Educators work as a team, consulting about lesson plans to ensure blocks mirror each other. “For instance, if they’re working on certain skills in ELA, I’ll mirror those skills, but in Spanish,” explained Vera.
Getting the kids talking and providing lots of structure is key, she explained. “In the beginning they’re shy so I provide lots of opportunities for them to converse,” she said. “The growth from September to June is amazing.”
The curriculum for sixth, seventh and eighth grade immersion students at Herricks Middle School includes two Spanish language courses -- a specially designed class based on themes from the Advanced Placement Spanish Language and Culture course, and a Spanish-language social studies class. Middle and high school immersion teachers work closely since students earn high school credit after three years of middle school immersion course work. Katherine Kirschner, Herricks TA, who teaches the AP centered immersion course to seventh and eighth graders, explained that “what the kids can do is much more advanced than students who have only been studying since sixth grade.
“They have content knowledge … the immersion students have learned enough that they can extrapolate … based on things they’ve learned,” she said. “They provide academic and curricular challenges that push me professionally, and I love it!”
And unlike traditional middle school foreign language learners, immersion students are more comfortable speaking, rather than reading or writing, Spanish. “The grammar is still a challenge for them -- they would speak Spanish all day long if you let them,” she said.
In high school, immersion students take honors Spanish as ninth graders, AP Spanish in tenth grade and a college-level Spanish class in subsequent years. The district is hoping to partner with a college or university so students can eventually earn college credits.
Twelfth grade Spanish educator Jennifer Gallo, Herricks TA, teaches “Writers, thinkers and artists of the Spanish speaking world,” a Spanish-language literature course typically taught at the college level. Gallo and Fratto developed it last summer. “They’re learning about Don Quixote and other authors I studied in college,” said Gallo noting that “they’re much more immersed in the language and culture” since they began learning about the Spanish-speaking world at such a young age.
And after 12 years together, the immersion students are also a supportive, tight-knit group. “They’re like siblings, they flock together, argue together and have an incredible bond,” said Gallo.
At graduation, the 22 immersion students received the NYS Seal of Biliteracy and selected, and wore, special red and gold cords to acknowledge their achievements. The cords will be part of the graduation regalia for all future immersion graduates. And the educators who’ve watched their progress through the years couldn’t be prouder. “I would love to see this program expand, and start in other school districts,” said Fratto noting that in Herricks, where over 44 different languages are spoken, and 70 percent of the student population is of Asian or South Asian descent, support for the program is high. “Let’s treat world languages as being important … and give kids the chance to study language from kindergarten on.”
Learn more about the Herricks Spanish Language Immersion program.