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Shaina McBride, physical education instructor and athletic director at St. Cecilia School in Omaha, helps pre-kindergarten student Victor Rivero Barajas at gym class Jan. 13. McBride has honed her Spanish to help in the classroom. Barajas’ classmate, Margo Haske, is in the background. Photo by Mike May/Staff.

Teachers, administrators learn Spanish to reach school families

Attending recent parent-teacher conferences at St. Cecilia School in Omaha, the coordinator of Latino enrollment in the Catholic Schools Office said she was happy to see a family greeted in Spanish by one of the teachers.

The family’s response, Beatriz Arellanes said, was enthusiastic.

Hoping to grow that level of enthusiasm – on the part of teachers and families – the archdiocese is in a second year of offering basic and advanced-level Spanish classes. About 16 to 22 people have attended each of four multi-session courses, including Shaina McBride, a physical education teacher at St. Cecilia who has taken both levels.

"I had learned some Spanish in college, but I hadn’t used it, so I’d lost most of what I had learned," McBride said.

And with increasing numbers of Latino students, the courses seemed like a good idea, she said.

In the last two years combined, Catholic schools in the archdiocese have experienced net growth of more than 400 Latino students, and those numbers are expected to grow, Arellanes said.

The classes help teachers, administrators and staff welcome and serve those families, she said.

Teachers enjoy the classes and "the families just love it," she said.

Arellanes especially praised participation of the archdiocese’s principals, including Cory Sepich of Ss. Peter and Paul, Gary Davis of St. Thomas More and William Kelly of St. James, all in Omaha, and Lynn Schultz of St. Bernadette and Trish Wallinger of St. Mary, both in Bellevue.

The Catholic Schools Office sets up the course using Title II federal funding for professional development. Last year, Mary Ann Tietjen, Spanish teacher at Mary Our Queen School in Omaha, taught a course.

This year, freelance Spanish instructor Indira Engel, working with the archdiocese through Spanish Chat Company, a local Spanish education business, has taught three courses, and the initiative has been well received.

And another Spanish Chat representative taught a workshop on using iPads to practice Spanish and communicate with Latino families.

"Teachers who work with Latino students and parents realize the importance of learning some of the language and culture," Engel said. "They expressed having ‘aha’ moments when something we covered in class explained a situation or exchange they had with a student or a parent.

"Furthermore, I think they benefited from exchanging experiences with fellow teachers who would have similar experiences," she added. "Not only did they get a chance to learn about the language and culture, but they also made friendships and networked for support across schools."

McBride said she enjoyed the courses with Engel.

"I liked the pacing, and the approach she took," she said.

While her college Spanish classes were mostly lists of vocabulary words, McBride said, Engel took words and phrases that she could begin using almost immediately.

"We talked about homework, or things that we would talk about in a parent-teacher conference," she said. "I haven’t used it with parents yet, but I’ve talked to a few students. It’s more exchanging pleasantries right now; I’m not using it as a teaching tool yet."

Her students occasionally quiz her in Spanish, she said.

"That’s been kind of fun."

And her students seem to appreciate that she’s trying to speak to them in their language, she said.

"It helps them to know, when I ask them to do something new, that they’re maybe not comfortable with, to know I’m trying something new, too."

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