When students graduate from Las Américas ASPIRA Academy, “they will enter the world as bilingual, bicultural and biliterate citizens,” says Margie López Waite, the former MBNA executive who is head of Delaware’s first dual-language charter school.
Simply put, the goal here is for students to know English as well as they know Spanish —and vice versa.
They’ll do it through what’s known as an “immersion program,” but it won’t work that way for everyone at the start, López Waite said.
ASPIRA Academy will open this week in the spacious former Happy Harry’s warehouse and executive office near Newark with 315 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Over the next three years, it expects to grow to an enrollment of 600 to 630 students in a K-8 program, López Waite said.
More than half the incoming students are from the Christina School District; about 30 percent come from the Colonial and Red Clay districts.
The school had hoped to have an enrollment in which half the students came from English-dominant families, and half from Spanish-dominant, but it turned out that English is the dominant language for about 65 percent of the students, López Waite said. Overall, about 60 percent of the students are Hispanic, and the other 40 percent includes a number of Asian-American and African-American students, she said.
“It’s a very diverse group of families that value bilingual skills and see that as an asset for their children,” López Waite said.
New charter school profile: Las Américas ASPIRA Academy
Excerpts of interview with the head of Las Américas ASPIRA Academy, Margie López Waite.
The all-day kindergarten and first grade classes will experience immersion from the start, because these students are at the ideal age to learn two languages simultaneously, she said.
In this model, one class will start the day in an English-speaking classroom, where they will learn English language arts as well as math, science and social studies. The other class in that grade level will start the day in a Spanish-speaking classroom, learning Spanish language arts plus math, science and social studies. Mid-day, they switch, so each class gets a half-day exposure to each language. The teachers have to collaborate, “so what the students learn in the morning is not the same as what they learn in the afternoon,” López Waite said. “It’s not a translation.”
For second grade and up, the school will take a “Spanish as a second language” approach, teaching Spanish as a separate subject, much as it would be in middle school or high school, López Waite said. As students become more proficient, Spanish will be incorporated into more of their regular coursework, she said.
And another thing…
In his two-plus years as director of the Delaware Economic Development Office, Alan Levin has spent a lot of time bringing shuttered manufacturing facilities back to life. He’ll probably be glad to know that his old office – the one he used when he was CEO of the Happy Harry’s drug store chain – has been repurposed in a way that’s consistent with his former line of work. Las Américas ASPIRA Academy has leased the former Happy Harry’s headquarters and warehouse on Ruthar Drive near Newark, and Levin’s corner suite has been transformed into the school nurse’s office.
As the older students complete eighth grade, Spanish as a second language will be phased out and the immersion method will be used in all grades, López Waite said.
The school, López Waite said, is the culmination of a dream of leaders in Delaware’s Hispanic community, many of whom are members of ASPIRA of Delaware, the state affiliate of ASPIRA, a 50-year old grassroots organization that encourages Hispanic students to stay in school, develop their leadership skills and serve their community.
Dr. Jaime “Gus” Rivera, director of the state Division of Public Health and chairman of the school’s board of directors, benefited from ASPIRA programs when he was growing up in New York, López Waite said.
ASPIRA organizations have set up nine similar charter schools in Chicago, Philadelphia and Miami, she said.
“We’ve been talking about it for 10 years, and the ASPIRA Delaware association was set up six years ago,” López Waite said. In addition to planning the school, the association has mentored high school seniors and set up ASPIRA clubs for Hispanic students in high schools in New Castle and Sussex counties.
“There’s so much promise and energy here,” said parent Melissa Bower, co-president of the school’s Parent-Teacher Organization. Her daughter Aria, who had been home-schooled, is entering fifth grade at ASPIRA Academy.
“She’s inquisitive, she’s interested in languages, and everybody is new, so there are no cliques to break into,” Bower said. “This is a perfect fit for her.”