Spanish-speaking preschoolers prepare for American school life

Renee Shadforth

The kids on the rope – that’s how most people know them.

They walk down Donner Pass Road on their way to the library or lunch at the senior center, each with their spot on a long red rope, each wearing a rainbow-printed uniform. Sometimes they sit on the grass that lines the sidewalk across from the fire station and wave to cars as they pass by.

But the children at Truckee State Preschool are doing more than strolling around town and finger painting. The 42 students – all Spanish speakers – are learning English, the joys of reading and what it’s like to be a part of their community – all before they get to kindergarten.

“We want to start the kids off on the same foot,” said State Preschool Executive Director Susan Bruno.

The students in the program are all Hispanic, Bruno said, but the school isn’t strictly reserved for Spanish speakers. Students are chosen for the program, which receives funding from proposition 10, based on door-to-door recruitment in specific areas of town.

“The priority from the beginning was to take these children from primarily Spanish-speaking homes and begin to expose them to the English language in a real practical way,” Bruno said.

When the program first started, Bruno’s biggest challenge was finding transportation for the students, because many of the parents did not have cars. The Nevada County Families First Commission, funded by monies from prop 10, gave State Preschool $25,000 to help the program get established. Some of those funds were used for Dial-A-Ride transportation.

Later on, the school district took over the transportation for the students, placing the students on the kindergarten routes.

The monies from prop 10 has given the state preschool program flexibility with its choice of curriculum, so teachers can do what works for their specific community’s needs.

For Bruno’s classes, it means singing songs, reading and storytelling in both English and Spanish.

“We can do things that are a little out of the box,” Bruno said.

Getting to the head of the class

The State Preschool students sit in a circle of chairs during the instruction portion of class and – like any group of toddlers feeding off one another’s energy – they don’t sit still.

Bruno announces it’s time to choose the teacher for the day, and a couple of students shout out, “ALibro!” indicating they’re ready for story time and not teacher time.

Still, Bruno randomly selects a student’s nametag, and picks out Osvaldo – an energized boy who had been bouncing around on the playground minutes before. Osvaldo, affectionately called “Gordo” by his classmates, takes on the responsibility of being teacher with pride.

Along with Osvaldo, who puts the date on the classroom calendar, the class counts in English the days in the month of May. Then Osvaldo, who appears to be a real teacher in the making, leads the class in story time.

Bruno speaks fondly of her students’ hopes for the future. Recently, one of her students, Jose, met two of the Flying Doctors pilots and told Bruno he wanted to be a pilot when he grows up (in addition to becoming a Power Ranger, Bruno said).

Bruno, who has also taken the knowledge test for her personal pilot’s license, realized Jose would have to take the test in English.

“So I think, ‘Jose, with your parents’ support, with a good grasp of the English language, which is attainable right here in the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District, with the incredible programs provided at our own airport, you will be a pilot some day,'” Bruno said.

After story and snack time, the students pick up their book bags – equipped with their own library cards – latch onto a section of rope, and begin their trek to the Truckee Library.

The State Preschool classes have been checking out approximately 80 books per week.

“We’re bringing their Spanish section to life,” she added.

For their other outings, Bruno has been taking her State Preschool students to the KidZone or Vicky and Dick Hooser’s Little Rascals childcare every Monday to immerse the Spanish-speaking State Preschool students with English-speaking children.

Since most of the students in kindergarten primarily speak English, Bruno said, it might help the State Preschool students feel more comfortable when they get on the bus for the first day of kindergarten and beyond.

One parent, Maria Rosas, agreed that the preschool experience has been beneficial for her youngest children who had the opportunity to go to State Preschool. Her oldest daughter, 9-year-old Vanessa, didn’t go to preschool, and it showed when she started attending Truckee Elementary School, Rosas said.

On the other hand, Rosas’ son Tony, 3, has had the opportunity to attend State Preschool.

“[Vanessa] was real shy. She was afraid of other children,” Rosas said. “Where Tony sings and colors and says rhymes all the time.”

Since her first years of school, Vanessa has adjusted to the social environment of Truckee Elementary, Rosas said. Vanessa even got on stage and sang while playing piano at a recent music recital.

Most of the parents with children in the State Preschool agree that although their children don’t want to leave preschool and go on to kindergarten, the youngsters were much more prepared for elementary school life.

Phebe Bell, the director of the School Readiness Project through the Children’s Collaborative of Tahoe Truckee, recently organized a meeting between preschool and kindergarten instructors so they can discuss changes in curriculum and immerging issues. It had been a few years since the lines of communication had been open between Truckee kindergarten and preschool teachers on this level, Bell said, but they made a commitment to meet each spring.

Bell agrees that it’s important for students to have the opportunity for the preschool experience, which includes socialization (how to sit in a circle and take turns), motor skill development (using scissors and coloring) and developmentally correct curriculum.

“Ideally, preschool is a supplement to what is happening at home,” Bell said. “The home environment is just as important.”

Preschool Director Bruno also stresses the importance of education supplementation in the home. She assigns homework for students and their parents, and instills in the adults the importance of parental involvement through the Parent’s A+ Club.

Two parents assist Bruno with her morning and afternoon programs.

More importantly, Bruno tells the State Preschool parents to become a visible part of the Truckee community – much like their children, who greet the traffic on Donner Pass Road while holding onto their rope.

“I say to the parents, ‘Give back,'” Bruno said. “Make tamales for the wonderful bus drivers who transport your children to school and back home. Make tamales for the district employees who support us. Support your child in his or her education and make informed decisions that are in the best interest of your child’s future in Truckee as a community.”

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