Ana Strong Garcia

Ana Strong Garcia, 17, in the hallways of Billings Senior High School on Thursday, January 18, 2018.

Learning languages comes naturally to Ana Strong Garcia. She was more nervous about teaching one.

Strong Garcia, a senior at Senior High, volunteered to teach Spanish to fifth-graders at Highland Elementary as part of her Platinum Project, a high-level academic path. She had studied immersion schools, where young children pick up languages with ease compared to adults.

The real world backed up her research.

“They learned a ton the first day,” Strong Garcia said. “I was a little bit unprepared for how much they were going to pick up.”

Strong Garcia contacted elementary schools near Senior about teaching, and Highland was the first to get back to her. For the first semester, she visited Debby Jangula’s classroom for about 40 minutes three days a week.

“All I knew is this was a kid from Senior, in the Platinum Program, Spanish program, and wanted to share her knowledge with the kids,” Jangula said. “I had no clue what to expect. She blew us all away.”

Students started with basic words, then built them into common phrases. By the semester’s end, they could answer and pose basic questions about topics like the weather, clothing and simple personal subjects. It didn't take long for students to strut their Spanish on the playground, Jangula said.

Foreign language instruction is not widespread in SD2 elementary schools. Strong Garcia had a leg up from her family.

“My mom is from Spain, so I kind of grew up speaking both languages in my house,” she said. During a trip to Spain, “I kind of noticed that they knew a lot more English than people here knew Spanish.”

For her Platinum Project, which requires an additional research project, she dug into the best ways for students to learn languages. She was especially intrigued by the immersion school model, used sparingly across the U.S., where students are taught at least partially in a second language from an early age.

She realized that wouldn’t be feasible to implement in practice for her project. But she thought back to other elementary school courses, like art and music, where teachers sometimes traveled from school to school.

“Why can’t there be a Spanish version of that?” she said.

Highland principal Julie Donald agreed.

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“I just thought it was an excellent opportunity for our kids to get a little bit of enrichment in our school day,” she said. “I was fairly certain I had teachers who were willing to carve out their time.”

“I think — no, I know — kids need a foreign language, and they need it early,” Jangula said. “Absolutely, for something that valuable, you make time. But you don’t leave (other topics) out… The kids knew that this time was special. They could not waste time during the day. It really kept the kids on task.”

For Strong Garcia, making sure students’ time was filled was a challenge.

“You have to learn how to be up there for a full half-hour,” she said, and avoid the dreaded “awkward silence.”

“That was definitely tough. I have a new appreciation for my teachers who lecture every day,” she said.

In Jangula’s eyes, Strong Garcia excelled.

“She also handled 25 fifth-graders with ease, comfort and professionalism,” Jangula said. “When she left, I had kids in tears.”

The lessons ended at semester, but Strong Garcia plans to study political science with an eye toward education policy in college.

There aren’t widespread programs for the Highland Students to continue their Spanish progression. SD2 course offerings don’t begin until middle or high school.

“I think it would be a hit,” Donald said, but barriers like funding won't soon evaporate. “I don’t know that that’s on the horizon.”

Strong Garcia also saw the benefit of learning languages young in her own high school career; she took four German courses.

“It’s definitely hard to learn once you start it in high school,” she said.

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