When little Alejandro Alvarez was 2 years old, his young life completely changed. He was in a new house, a new city, and a new country. Alejandro had been living with his family in Madrid, Spain and suddenly he was surrounded by people that didn't speak his language. He needed to adapt to his new surroundings quickly.
To help him better adapt, his mother, Maria, had decided to place him in a good, reputable school. She and her husband, Fernando, moved to the United States 6 years ago to be volunteers in Reto Ministries, located here in Little Rock. The move required long term visas that Maria hopes will eventually become permanent.
"The visa for ministers is like a tourist visa... it lasts for 6 years. We had to apply for residence or go back to Spain, so we applied for the residential visa."
After doing some research, Maria settled on the UAMS Head Start Program at Daisy Bates Elementary. She had discovered the program on a flyer at a convenience store in her neighborhood. When asked why she decided to enroll him in Head Start, she replied "I think if he started one year early, it would be good for him because he didn't speak much English at the time."
The first major obstacle that Alejandro faced was the language barrier that existed between him and his teachers as well as his classmates. But it seemed it was a challenge that he really enjoyed.
Shortly after the school year began, the family had to return to Spain, and Maria was worried that he would lose the English he had just picked up. "In the beginning of his school days, September to October, he very quickly gave effort. Then he went to Spain for a month and that is why he came back and he picked it (English) back up very quickly."
Once Alejandro had returned to Arkansas and the UAMS Head Start program, he started developing bonds with his teachers. One in particular, Dawna Doan, was his favorite and they worked well together.
Even before he had learned to speak English, he had grown accustomed to the teachers there and wanted to be a part of program. “He wanted to come to class everyday.”
Spanish to English
Alejandro, now nine years of age, had a great experience at UAMS Head Start, and it has better helped prepare him for the rigors of regular school. Despite the fact that he speaks fluent English, he still has a real passion for the Spanish language. This is something that Maria is very proud of.
"English speaking people say that he speaks English perfectly. He has a good Spanish accent. He sounds American."
Alejandro even fools the people back home in Spain. "If I talk to him, he has the Spanish accent. But people from Spain says he has an English accent."
Either way, Alejandro has made great strides in both English and Spanish. He has learned to speak and read English through school, but an unexpected benefit has been that he's taught himself to read Spanish. One of the reasons that this occurred is because Maria makes it a point to take him to the Baseline Library once a week, as well as other libraries in the area. There, he can select books in both English as well as Español and that has helped him become a more well rounded student.
Alejandro and his younger brother speak English to one another, but they also speak quite a bit of Spanish as well, which is actually a rare thing, says Yojaina Loyd, Multicultural Enrichment Specialist for UAMS. "Usually the siblings speak English to each other most of the time because if they were raised here, the English comes easier for them. Rarely do they speak Spanish to each other. Alejandro really wants to speak Spanish."
His enthusiam for the Spanish language has also reached from his home to the classroom. He has been teaching the other children in his class how to speak it, one word at a time. "He is still in love with Spain and the Spanish language and the teachers let him teach one or two words to the class a few minutes a day. He wants everybody to speak in Spanish, so he does that in school."
Maria has watched Alejandro make great strides and is very proud of what he has accomplished, despite being in an foreign environment. His grades have been stellar and he is really excelling in school.
"In First Grade, he had all A’s. Then he started in the Second Grade Alpha Program. In Third Grade Alpha he had all A’s, but he did have one B..." she says with a smile.
Next in Line
Maria was so impressed with Alejandro's progress that she has decided to enroll the younger of her two boys, Marcos at UAMS Head Start. She is excited to see what becomes of him after he leaves the program.
Unlike his older brother, 4 year old Marcos was born here in the United States, but he likes to claim that he was also born in Spain. Oddly enough, he also claims that he is from Hawaii because of one of his teachers at Head Start, Ms. Kilgore, who hails from the island state.
When asked if Maria would recommend the Head Start Program to others that are new to the Little Rock area, she states: "It was good for Alejandro to start English at an younger age instead of waiting until he was five and in Kindergarten. It will help a child who speaks Spanish to start early."
"What Head Start helps with the most among the Spanish speaking children is socialization, being with other children and getting familiarized with the routines of school before they jump to Kindergarten."
To make a smooth transition from Madrid, Spain to Little Rock, Arkansas is a difficult thing to do. But with the help of UAMS Head Start and his mother, Alejandro has not only adapted, but also excelled in this new world.