Saturday, July 19, 2008

Bilingual child-development center serves Latino families

José Martí Child Development Center, an accredited bilingual Spanish and English preschool at El Centro de la Raza of Seattle, will receive $16,500 for the impact it has made on Latino families.

Aria Shepard
Seattle Times staff reporter
July 7, 2008

Four-year-old Victoria Garcia likes learning English and is not looking forward to leaving her preschool.

"I want to stay here; I don't want to go to kindergarten," she said. "I like to listen, and I like to stay here. I like to read more."

Victoria attends José Martí Child Development Center, a bilingual Spanish and English preschool at El Centro de la Raza of Seattle on Beacon Hill.

El Centro, which offers support services to Latino families, was recently named winner of the 2008 National Council of La Raza/Annie E. Casey Foundation Family Strengthening Award for the positive impact the José Martí center has had on Latino families.

"It's been a big help," Victoria's mother, Cecilia Martinez, said in Spanish through a translator. She was one of four parents who provided testimonials about the day-care center to the National Council of La Raza, the largest Hispanic civil-rights group in the United States.

Martinez and her husband moved here in 1997 from Mexico, where their friends and extended family live. When they began looking for a preschool for their son, Victoria's older brother, Tomás, they found what they needed at José Martí.

"For myself, for people who come from other countries, we can find it all here, from immigration to lawyers, all the information I need," Martinez said.

When Martinez was pregnant with Victoria, she turned to El Centro again for resources and information. Now she is more engaged with her community; she participates in immigration rallies and visits legislators in Olympia. She credits her increased involvement to El Centro.

José Martí, the first accredited bilingual early-learning program on the West Coast, according to El Centro, serves 68 preschool students, whose progress is tested regularly as they prepare for kindergarten.

Hilda Magaña, director of José Martí, has been working at El Centro for 23 years.

Children from all backgrounds attend the center, she said, and some come in with little knowledge of English or Spanish.

Because children learn languages at their own pace, one challenge for the center is meeting the expectations of parents, some of whom "want the children to learn English quickly because it's a survival skill," she said.

When the center first started, lessons were taught only in Spanish. When students began to fall behind in kindergarten, Magaña said, the center re-evaluated its goals and now emphasizes dual-language learning and maintaining a cultural heritage.

"Every family is unique," she said. "Sometimes the children carry on messages of their culture, and some don't. Hopefully we've given the tools to the children to learn from their culture, but we cannot control them."

The award comes with $16,500, which Magaña said will be used to enhance several programs and for materials and toys.

Eight-year-old Tomás Garcia says he is better at speaking English but likes speaking Spanish.

"When I talk Spanish to my grandma, she gives me money to buy Popsicles," he said.

Tomás misses the preschool but enjoys the after-school programs available at El Centro for 5- to 12-year-olds. "I want to come here until I die," the soon-to-be fourth-grader said. "It's really a good place. They take care of you."

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