New Era Enrichment Academy creates multicultural learners

New Era Enrichment Academy creates multicultural learners

Owners and teachers Marlena DeLuca, left, and Vanessa Faiola stand in front of New Era Enrichment Academy, an early education school that promotes multiculturalism and bilingualism, which opened in May. (Valley breeze photo by Melanie Thibeault)

SMITHFIELD - When Marlena DeLuca and Vanessa Faiola opened the doors to New Era Enrichment Academy in May, they knew that they were opening more than just an early education school dedicated to multicultural learning.

The two teachers feel they stand at the forefront of a new way of teaching and thinking about foreign language immersion in the state of Rhode Island.

At the top of a hill at 13 Hebdeen Street in Johnston, tucked away in the woods, sits a little red schoolhouse. Unlike most other early education schools in the state, New Era promotes foreign language immersion and exploratory learning for infants, toddlers and preschool-aged children.

"Children are sponges," Faiola said. "It's the perfect time to take in language."

New Era offers year-round, half- and full-day language immersion programs with the percentage of foreign language instruction increasing as children age. Sign language instruction is also available for non-verbal learners. "We are not a school for Spanish-speaking children to learn English," DeLuca said. "We are a multicultural, world language academy for all children."

While New Era has an Italian enrichment program, the current focus is on Spanish instruction with future plans to expand into other languages.

Though New Era is a full-curriculum based school, DeLuca and Faiola say they are confident that they can teach all children with different levels of experience.

Five-year-olds who have not been exposed to a language other than English learn alongside peers who have been speaking a second language since they learned how to talk.

"They work together, grow together and help each other," DeLuca said.

Learning a second language can assist the way in which children process other information, they say. By learning literacy and math in both English and a second language, "they're simulating real life experiences," DeLuca said.

It might seem premature to plan for a toddler's adult life, but as Faiola said, "The optimal years of development are from birth to 5 years old."

Exposing children to multiculturalism and bilingualism earlier will benefit them throughout their academic careers and into adulthood, she maintains.

Five years ago, inspired by the University of Rhode Island's Roadmap to Language Excellence initiative, DeLuca and Faiola, full-time foreign language teachers in the Warwick and Johnston school systems respectively, set out to make their dream of creating New Era a reality.

The URI initiative's goal is to create a "multilingual, culturally savvy workforce" in Rhode Island by the year 2030. As DeLuca said, "Many professionals have found the importance of language and being worldly/bicultural/bilingual. The main goal when children leave is to have them multilingual."

Being multicultural and bilingual also creates better citizens, according to DeLuca. It helps to be "able to communicate with different people based on culture" and exposes children to different lifestyles, traditions and holidays.

Exposure and constant experiences are the keys to succeeding in language. But what happens when that exposure declines or disappears - when students leave New Era to enter kindergarten and elementary schools that don't have foreign language programs?

"Children need that consistency when learning," Faiola said. "Continuing it throughout all schooling is a lifelong goal."

Faiola and DeLuca have communicated with private and public schools in the area that do offer competitive language programs at earlier ages, and often suggest these institutions to parents.

They also offer tools, links and resources on their website for parents to help children continue learning at home.

Some school systems, like Johnston, have been working to teach language classes in earlier grades. But more progress and awareness are needed to actually fulfill such "new era" goals in Rhode Island.

"Hopefully (this) happens sooner rather than later," Faiola said. "If not, we'll take it on."

New Era is hosting an open house on Sunday, Aug. 17, from noon to 4 p.m. Call 401-349-3397 or visit www.neweraenrichment.com.

Students at the New Era Enrichment Academy learn in both English and Spanish, as part of the school's unique language immersion program. Books like "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes: Cabeza, Hombros, Piernas, Pies" promote and improve bilingual skills in first-time readers. (Valley Breeze & Observer by Melanie Thibeault)