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Denisse Gonzalez helps Alexis Brown, 2, to learn the Spanish words for “full” and “empty” at Mis Amigos Spanish Immersion school in St. Paul Park. (Bulletin photos by William Loeffler)

Spanish for little ones: Immersion preschool opens in St. Paul Park

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Like most 2-year-olds, Alexis Brown and Janai Quitana are learning their letters and words.

But at the same time, they’re also learning Spanish. And it’s not necessarily a second language, since they barely know their first.

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The toddlers are among the charter class of Mis Amigos Spanish Immersion, which opened recently in St. Paul Park.

Located in the former rectory of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church, Mis Amigos has only eight students, but owner Dawn Uribe said she expects that number to grow. Their three other Mis Amigos schools, located in Hopkins, St. Paul and Minnetonka, serve about 200 children. They are licensed to teach kids up to 12 years old but teach only through the second grade at their St. Paul Park school.

The routine at Mis Amigos resembles that of most other preschools. Kids participate in “circle time” at the beginning and end of the day. They enjoy snacks, story time and activities. They develop their fine motor skills through art projects, songs and games.

Here, however, lessons and conversations are conducted exclusively en español, por favor.

“We try and do it without using English words so they just hear the Spanish words,” Uribe says. “To them, it’s not like they have to think ‘table’ and translate it.”

Because they don’t yet have a full grasp of English and lack the inhibitions of adults, small fry can be more receptive to absorbing a second language.

“They learn without fear,” Uribe says.

She says that learning Spanish helps kids develop an appreciation for Latin American culture, as happened to her when she took Spanish in high school. She’s traveled to Mexico and Spain.

Teacher Denisse Gonzalez is a native of Mexico. At a recent class, she taught Alexis and Janai the words for vacio (empty) and lleno (full) using paper on which two bottles were drawn. To reinforce the lesson, teachers instructed the pair to put pieces of red construction paper to “fill” the bottle marked “lleno.”

“Mui bien, Alexis,” Gonzalez says, when the latter makes the connection.

Next, the teachers use paper dolls and stuffed toys to teach the pair the names various animals — a mono (monkey), jirafa (giraffe) and gato (cat).

When Alexis and Janai appear to be stymied over the word for “dog,” teacher Maribel Schafer, a native of Peru, provides a hint by speaking in the universal canine language: “Woof! Woof!”

Uribe says they opened a school in St. Paul Park because of the potential synergy with School District 833’s Spanish immersion program, beginning with the Nuevas Fronteras grade-school program at Crestview Elementary School in Cottage Grove.

Three of the students in their preschool class,  including  Chester Taylor, 4, of  Newport, have older siblings who attend Nuevas Fronteras, Uribe says.

Mis Amigos has full- and half- day instruction as well as summer camp. Age groups vary among different locations.

For more information, visit www.misamigospreschool.com.

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William Loeffler
William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 
(651) 459-3435
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