Isabella Martinez Cortes, who is nearly 3, joined her pre-kindergarten classmates at Mi Escuela Montessori in South Lakeland on Friday to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, singing “Mi Cuerpo Hace Música” – My Body Makes Music – as they clapped their hands and stomped their feet.
Bre Perez, 36, watched her 4-year-old daughter Quinn sing the last line of the song: “Cintura hace — cha cha cha!” or “My waist does the cha cha cha.”
“I like the freedom that she has to learn independence and also to learn a second language,” Perez said. She added that Quinn’s “creativity and imagination is much more encouraged here.”
Kelly Harkins de la Cruz dreamed of creating the free charter school two decades ago and says the concert is the final event of the year that will demonstrate the school’s distinctive way of learning in two languages. Students as young as three years old are immersed in both languages – 80% Spanish and 20% English – so they can become fluent in both.
Just two years after opening at the corner of County Road 540-A and U.S. Highway 98, her school has more than 200 children who are learning in the bilingual immersion setting.
Lining hallways and ceilings leading to the auditorium were paper sombreros each child decorated and festive paper picados – colorful banners with shapes cut into them by the children for Cinco de Mayo, an annual celebration of Mexico’s victory over France at the Battle of Puebla in 1862.
Walking through one of the pre-kindergarten classrooms, de la Cruz pointed out wooden cut-out letters that the young students can trace to learn to write, along with letters to create words that they can place on a mat that resembles lined paper. At another table, students match Spanish words with pictures and a small plastic tub holds journals in which the pre-K students write.
Montessori schools differ from regular schools in that classrooms are organized into core areas: practical life, sensorial, language, math, culture (geography, history, and science) and creative arts. Montessori schools emphasize:
- Individualized instruction
- Interdisciplinary curriculum
- Hands-on, project-based learning
- Opportunities to develop self-discipline
- Large blocks of independent work time
- Practical life skills
- Conflict resolution and self-regulation
- Emphasis on the school-family partnership
“One of the things about Montsessori is we teach them to be independent and we teach practical skills,” said de la Cruz, showing off a small garden lined with squash plants that the children grew from seeds.
“We made squash soup,” she said.
Lined against a classroom wall were shapes that help teach geometry. Students are encouraged to run their fingers along their wooden edges to become familiar with their names and shapes. On the floor were wooden numbers from 1 to 9,999.
The Early Learning Coalition of Polk County helps to oversee the voluntary pre-kindergarten classes, which offer a foundation of learning that prepares preschoolers for kindergarten.
In addition to VPK funding, the ELC also provides financial assistance with childcare for families who qualify through School Readiness funding. Mi Escuela’s Pre-K teachers also receive professional development through the ELC.
Natalie Joachim, an ELC VPK Program Support Coach who has been assisting the teachers at Mi Escuela, says the guidance is well-received by teachers who instruct at a high-quality level. She noted Friday morning that their pre-K students’ average score on a national test was nearly a six out of seven and that students are entering kindergarten reading at a first- or second-grade level.
Back inside the auditorium, the children finished up their Cinco de Mayo concert for family and teachers.
Perez said she has an older daughter attending the school, in addition to her pre-K daughter. She noted that the school just added sixth grade and will be adding on the next two grade levels in the next two years to be a Pre-K-8th grade school.
“As long as they can stay here, I’ll keep them here,” Perez said.
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