Almost everything in the school is labeled in both languages. On days when Spanish is taught, everyone in the building speaks the language right down to the janitors, said Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, a Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor who developed the program.
“We have a country made of up immigrants and learning a second language is good for the global economy,’’ Bonilla- Santiago said. For children, learning two languages “is critically important for their own professional development and careers.’’
The Early Learning Research Academy was developed to prepare students before they enter kindergarten at the Leap Academy University Charter School, which seeks to break the cycle of poverty by preparing low-income minority students to attend college. It will also serve as a lab for faculty to research how quickly infants pick up language skills, Bonilla- Santiago said.
Marcela Caro wanted her sons – Kyle, 4, and 16-month-old twins Connor and Dylan – to have the early second language education her father shared with her as a preschooler in Chile.
Learning English as a young child helped broad her world. “It opened doors for me,” said Caro, who served as program coordinator for Rutgers’ Study Abroad office until January 2011. “I’m very grateful to have been exposed to another language at such an early age.”
After leaving Rutgers to become a full-time mom, Caro searched for a bilingual moms group on www.meetup.com
. When she couldn’t find one, she started her own.
“My son [Kyle] was my inspiration for my whole program,” Caro said of the Somerset Spanish for Children Play and Learn Group, which she founded in March 2011. “I realized he needed to meet more children that were bilingual. Me being at home teaching him wasn’t going enough.”
After her first informal series, preschools began contacting Caro. Now she teaches Spanish at local early childhood centers including the Yellow Brick Road Preschool in Highland Park.
Caro’s class has attracted numerous Spanish-speaking moms who are married to English-speaking spouses, including Highland Park’s Carmen Herzog, who said she wants to share her native tongue with daughter Zoe, who just turned 4.
While Zoe understands Spanish, Herzog said she was reluctant to speak it until she attended Caro’s class. “Being with other kids speaking Spanish is big motivator,” she said. “It’s more of a chore when it’s just with your mom.”
The program also appeals to non-bilingual parents, including Joan McCormick, wife of Rutgers President Richard McCormick. Their daughter Katie – who turns 2 in January – started Caro’s classes at 16 months. Now, when Caro speaks to Katie, she replies in English, demonstrating she understands what Caro is saying.
“I personally believe it’s important to know another language. I think it helps you in every aspect of your life,” said Joan McCormick, who took five years of Spanish in high school and college. “I never used it and can’t speak the language. I wish I were immersed in it much younger and that it became a way of life.”