A Brief Look at Heritage Language Schools

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Photo by woodleywonderworks

Photo by woodleywonderworks

Back-to-school has been a major theme in our country this week. Today we want to explore another educational option that’s available for our niños: Heritage Language Schools. You might not have even heard of them, like us, or have no idea how to find one in your area. So, we’ve prepared this to introduce you to the basic concept of Heritage Language Schools, why they’re an excellent alternative for parents raising bilingual children and how you can get motivated to find one or even start your own.

My girl just turned two and the obvious next transition period in her life is pre-school. We’re both very ready for it to happen, like YA, but I’m facing a brick wall when it comes to Spanish immersion pre-schools, or even schools in my area. I do have an elementary scoped out, but I would like for her to be immersed in Spanish through playful learning at this age when she’s so willing and able.

During my research, I ran into Grupo Educa’s websiteGrupo Educa is basically a group of bilingual parents who got together and decided to provide their children with exposure to Spanish literacy starting at a pre-k level and continuing on to middle school. They meet every Sunday in a classroom environment with certified teachers who’ve created a relevant and fun learning curriculum in Spanish.

In this sense, the parents who form Grupo Educa have created a Heritage Language School.

The Alliance for the Advancement of Heritage Languages broadly defines Heritage Language Schools as “any language development program that is designed or tailored to address the needs of heritage language learners.” But most importantly, “Heritage language schools are often created out of a community’s desire to pass on their language and culture from one generation to the next in order to maintain connections within families and communities.”

These programs are defined primarily because they are created to preserve the language and, through it, the particular heritage culture. Children enrolled are proficient in the language and/or have some sort of cultural connection to it through their family. This educational setting is not meant to teach a child a new language, it is meant to reinforce and maintain a tie to their ancestry. I also find it an excellent way to belong to a community of like-minded parents that will support and encourage your bilingual efforts. I can see my daughter gaining immensely from having a steady group of amigos she can relate to and grow with, kids with whom speaking Spanish to will be the normal thing to do.

I visited Grupo Educa in their Pasadena classroom on the last day before summer break and was warmly welcomed by a group of mamás y papás who were all there on a Sunday morning accompanying their kids in a learning environment they have so lovingly, and through so much effort, created and continue to grow. These are parents who are truly committed to raising bilingual and bicultural children and they are all an inspiration to us.

I asked Rey Rodriguez, one of the most active parents and father of two boys, to please share a bit of their experience with us since I sincerely believe this is an option that is available to all parents who can gather a community around them to make it happen.

Why did you decide to create Grupo Educa?

I can’t take any credit for forming the group. It was founded before I got involved. Nevertheless, each parent had a different reason, but all were Spanish speakers who realized that their children were naturally gravitating to English. It wasn’t enough for parents to speak to their children in Spanish at home; many needed a community to make the language relevant. The families sought out schools and discovered that none existed. So a group of teachers, scientists, lawyers, and others decided to create their own school. This was back in 2003. I joined the group in 2005 and I have been active ever since.

Is Grupo Educa considered a Heritage Language School?

Yes, most definitely. As it is currently operated, I would say that the emphasis is more on language than on heritage. But as Henestroso, an important Mexican intellectual, once said “language is culture.” So it is difficult to extract culture and heritage from learning Spanish which is the primary way in which many of the families express themselves. For their children to lose the gift of learning Spanish would immediately cut them off from learning about music, art, literature, dance and history, i.e., their heritage, that happens to be expressed in Spanish. It is important to note that the school is incredibly diverse with families coming from many parts of Latin America and Spain so it is not possible to teach any particular heritage. Nevertheless, teaching Spanish to the next generation ensures that they will be able to open the door to their unique heritage.

How important is parents’ involvement in a heritage school?

I would say that the school would die without parental involvement. Mothers and fathers are involved in all aspects of the organization, including its board of directors, teaching, fundraising, event planning and curriculum planning. You have to remember that the organization was founded by parents so that its whole heart comes from the vision and efforts of a group of families who want to impart a language onto another generation. For some it is one of the most important gifts that they can pass on to their children and they are willing to make fantastic sacrifices to make sure that they do not lose their connection with their past.

What are the major benefits you’ve seen from children and parents attending the classes?

Oh, there are so many, but I’m not sure that you would be able to quantify the most important. I believe the beauty of the school is that it is such a work of love. It was created because no other similar institution existed and there was a critical need for its existence. At the end of the day, I believe that the school breeds a certain confidence in the children because they become aware of who they are and they are proud of it. The other day, I pronounced a Spanish word with an English accent and my son said, “You know better than that Papá, it is pronounced “La Brea.” I don’t believe that but for the school he would have ever corrected me.

If there are none or scarce bilingual education options in my town, should I consider starting a Heritage School?

No question. You must and you should do it when your children are at least 2 years old. If you wait any longer the window narrows.

  • Start building a community of families.
  • Find the best teachers you can find and make sure that you have very high standards.
  • Form a nonprofit so that you can request funds from foundations and other sources of funding.
  • Be consistent and speak to your children in Spanish.
  • Keep at it. Never give up on creating opportunities for your children to be at least bilingual.

For more information on Heritage Language Schools and an online collection of Heritage Language Program profiles visit the website of The Alliance for the Advancement of Heritage Languages.

Is there a Heritage Language School in your area?  Could you please share it with us so we can all start making connections?  Feel free to leave a link and any information that could help parents find it.

Don’t forget to visit our sister site SpanglishBabyFinds to discover with us the coolest products made with Latino and bilingual kids in mind.

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