by: JAIME VALDEZ - Five-year-olds Logan Bowersock, left, Anika Krishnamoorthy and Molly Clancy stand in front of an art piece that their preschool class made inspired by artist Diego Rivera at Touchstone School in Tigard. The school will launch a pilot program this fall to bring Spanish immersion classes to the 4-year-old students. A small private preschool in Tigard is launching a pilot program that could have repercussions across the country.

Touchstone School, a small private pre-school on Southwest Fir Loop, is set to launch a Spanish immersion program this fall, where students will be taught in Spanish, rather than English.

The small private school is home to about 80 students between the ages of 2 and 5 in pre-school and pre-kindergarten classes.

The program will launch in September, and offer a class for pre-kindergarten students.

Spanish immersion has become a common sight in public schools across the Portland area, but few private preschools have gotten on board, said Principal Cindy Galligan.

“No one else is really doing it around here,” Galligan said, “Families wanting second language in the pre-school arena have to go to international schools, and those aren’t anywhere near us.”

Parents will decide whether to enroll their students into a traditional class or the immersion program.

The program will use the same curriculum as the rest of the school, Galligan said, but will teach that curriculum in Spanish.

“It’s not about teaching them a second language,” Galligan said. “It’s about making kids smarter. Because of what immersion classes do and how their brains are wired right now there is a window of time they are wired to learn second language naturally and easily.”

Spanish has always been part of the Touchstone curriculum, but Galligan said it was far from comprehensive.

“It was mostly vocabulary,” she said. “This is going to be very different for us.”

To learn more about Touchstone’s Spanish immersion program, visit

Making smarter kids

Spanish immersion programs are offered in school districts across the Portland area.

The Tigard-Tualatin School District launched its first immersion program two years ago at Metzger Elementary School, and expanded the programthis year to Bridgeport Elementary School in Tualatin.

Those schools started programs in kindergarten classes and plan to expand the program over the next several years until each grade has immersion options.

In Tigard-Tualatin, immersion classes were seen as a bridge to help Spanish-speaking students transition into English speaking classes, by allowing students to learn in their own language and slowly receive instruction in more and more English.

That isn’t the case at Touchstone, which has few Spanish-speaking students, Galligan said.

Instead, the hope is to take advantage of how young children learn.

“You don’t learn the language, you learn in the language,” said Carolina Perez, a Spanish teacher at Touchstone who is helping to implement the program. “That makes a huge difference.”

Most of Touchstone’s students speak English as their first language, Galligan, but some speak Persian or Chinese.

“These 3-year-olds come in with zero English, and they have essentially merged into an English immersion program,” Galligan said. “It’s amazing how quickly they can pick it up.”

When young people learn to speak a second language it helps them later in life,” Perez said, even if they don’t continue to learn the language.

“The way the brain works, when they are learning two languages it’s like multi-tasking,” Perez said. “Getting the brain used to that works not only for languages, but everything else they do in life. We are making smarter kids.”

That foundation can lead to a lifetime of changes, Galligan said.

“Even if this is the only year they have in Spanish, they will gain those benefits just cognitively,” Galligan said.

'All eyes on us'

Students are excited, Galligan said, and even devoted the school’s annual art showcase to the project.

Students spent the past several weeks learning about Spanish speaking artists, such as Frida Kahlo, and then tried their hand at emulating their style.

Gabriel Ruffer, 5, won’t be in next year’s immersion class, but painted a Frida-inspired self-portrait.

“My favorite sport is lacrosse, and I am wearing my favorite hat and favorite gloves,” Ruffer said looking at his work.”

“It took a super long time,” said student Kari Vilarino, 4. “It took, like, 5 days.”

Touchstone operates three campuses around Portland, including an elementary school in Lake Oswego and a preschool and kindergarten in Beaverton.

Across the country, the organization operates 180 schools, but Galligan said that the Tigard school will be the first to try a true Spanish immersion program.

Galligan said that if the program is successful, it could be expanded to other Touchstone schools.

“All eyes will be on how successful this program is and how kids are acquiring the language,” Galligan said.

“There is nothing saying we couldn’t add kindergarten as well, but right now we’ll look at this year and go from there.”

Perez taught Spanish at Touchstone for five years, and said that the program will be a game-changer for the small school.

“This is a baby that is going to be born and to be part of this, it’s wonderful,” Perez said.

Perez moved from Chile to America more than a decade ago with her two young children, but the family has also lived in Spanish speaking Argentina and Brazil, where the dominant language is Portuguese.

Immersing her kids in foreign languages has helped them immensely, she said.

“I have seen with my own eyes as a parent how fantastic and easy it is for them to learn a second language, or even a third,” she said. “It’s one of those things that, if you don’t see it for yourself, you don’t believe it,” Perez said. “People don’t think it’s going to happen, and then it does.”

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