The little school that could: El Sol Elementary is making the Vine neighborhood a worldlier place

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Vine Neighborhood series.

On the corner of Vine and Oak, a small dual-immersion elementary school has brightened the neighborhood with the sound of children's voices and laughter, and its two annual and much anticipated festivals (October's Taste of El Sol and May's Fiesta del Sol), both open to the community.
 
At 11 years old, El Sol Elementary School, the only public Spanish immersion school in the county and a Kalamazoo Public Schools magnet school, has grown from a kindergarten through fourth-grade school of 145 students to one that extends to fifth-grade with 365 students. Of those students, 50 percent are native English speaking and 50 percent are native Spanish speaking, a balance important to keep so neither language dominates during the school day where half of the content instruction is in each language.
 
“El Sol is an innovative program,” says Principal Dr. Natalie Wilson. “Dual language immersion is the direction that we all need to go in this country. This is a school that produces global citizens. Our students have an advantage over other monolingual people in the career world.”

Wilson points to her own resume, which she says depended upon her Spanish proficiency, a language that she started learning when she was in eighth grade, a developmental age typically more challenging for language learners. Wilson says she is a “subordinate bilingual,” meaning she filters Spanish through English. El Sol students learn Spanish earlier and are “coordinate bilingual,” meaning they are able to switch languages more fluidly.
 
Studies have shown that bilingual students have an advantage over traditional students in mastering new material. El Sol students tend to outperform students in the district by the end of fifth grade on standardized tests, says Dr. Wilson. “All of the functioning they have to do with a second language makes their brains more able to process new information and to problem solve because they have to consistently be in a situation where they are challenged and constantly growing.”
 
During Taste of El Sol this year, hundreds of parents, children, teachers and community members gathered in the crowded school where all were eager to stand in line to taste champurrado (a warm Mexican chocolate drink), tamales, pozole rojo (a Mexican hominy and pork stew), tostadas, bourekas (Israeli cheese-filled pastries) Spam musabi (a popular Hawaiian snack), or the many other ethnic delicacies for sale and served by El Sol families. The yearly event takes place during Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15 to Oct. 15).
Taste of El Sol is a school fundraiser that celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month.
At the Taste of El Sol, Mary Mazei, a first grade El Sol teacher, was selling exports, like scarves and sweaters, from Ecuador, where her husband Felix was born. Mazei, who has also had two children go through KPS' Spanish immersion program--Nina, 24, and who went through the previous dual language program at Lincoln International School where Mazei also taught, and Shandor, 20, who attended El Sol--says that the Vine neighborhood was welcoming and supportive when the school move was proposed.
 
“What I think makes El Sol stand out from other schools in the districts is the diversity of our student population, not just racial or cultural, but socioeconomic,” Mazei says. “Kids from all walks of life and from different cultural and economic backgrounds are rubbing elbows and working together.”

Mazei says she and her husband chose a dual language program for their own children to preserve their bilingualism.
 
“My situation is similar to other families in that at least one of the parents is foreign-born,” adds Mazei. “You want to maintain that language in your family. When a lot of kids start school, their home language isn't as well supported. We wanted our kids to grow up bilingual and having a school program that encourages that is always really helpful. “
 
During Taste of El Sol, the entryway and hallways boast a colorful “explosion of Hispanic Heritage art and culture,” says Dr. Wilson. During Hispanic Heritage Month at El Sol, each teacher chooses a theme, such as the culture of the Incas, Mayan math, or plants and animals from the Americas, for the month's lessons and then showcase student work.
 
“I'm really proud of the focus on the Latino cultures here,” says Dr. Wilson. “We make an extra effort, an intentional effort, to recognize Latino culture, indigenous peoples of the Americas, and focus on the importance for all kids to appreciate each other's backgrounds.
 
“We have such a positive family atmosphere,” says Dr. Wilson of the school. “I love the Taste of El Sol because it's a time for families to shine with their cultural background. It's huge to know your history and to celebrate it and understand that it's not just European people who are valued.”
 
It takes a village and a neighborhood association, too
 
El Sol's current Vine location represents the passionate efforts of parents who were committed to the value of a dual-language school, and the combined efforts of a neighborhood that was so eager to have the school take residence that it was willing to invest $50,000  just to see it come to pass.

El Sol Elementary is the Kalamazoo Public Schools dual language immersion school and it's located in Vine.In 2007, threats of closing the dual language program at Lincoln International Studies School alarmed parents who valued the bilingual education their children were receiving. Steve Walsh, director of Vine Neighborhood Association, credits impassioned parents for envisioning Vine and the then vacant Vine Alternative School as a good fit. 
 
“From a VNA perspective, it was felt that the closing of Vine Elementary in the late '80s really had a detrimental effect on the neighborhood, and we were very interested in somehow opening another grade school within Vine,” says Walsh, whose two children both attended El Sol.

El Sol has brought new life to the corner, and many think it has drawn more families to move to the neighborhood or at least consider staying once they started families, which was the case for Margaret Wilson (no relationship to Dr. Wilson) and her husband who were renting in Vine, and decided to purchase a home when they learned of El Sol. 

“I think El Sol is a really good fit for Vine,” says Margaret Wilson, whose three daughters attend El Sol. "The neighborhood has a really good sense of community and we all believe in accepting and celebrating being different, rather than tolerating it. The school also celebrates differences. I think those are really common values between the neighborhood and the school and why a lot of Vine parents choose the school for their kids.”
 
Families in Vine have the option to send their children to El Sol, but other English-speaking students in the district must apply by lottery. Vine residents make up between 15 and 20 percent of the student population, says Dr. Wilson. The families who are accepted usually have strong “buy-in,” she says, and are therefore very involved. They choose a multicultural school like El Sol because they appreciate what it has to offer.

“I think El Sol has helped make the neighborhood more attractive to parents and prospective parents alike,” says Walsh. “When the demographics of the neighborhood's population began to trend away from student housing, families took advantage of that void, and I think having a high-end dual-language immersion school was a very attractive beacon.”
 
El Sol spreading light to its immigrant families

For immigrants, especially Latinx, the last few years have been particularly difficult. As a community that has many immigrant members, El Sol has risen to the occasion and taken extra steps to be supportive, welcoming and inclusive, finding ways to work with language and cultural barriers. When a family is in crisis, the school is affected, says Dr. Wilson.

“With increased ICE presence, some family members have been affected by detentions and deportations, which has created an atmosphere of fear and distrust for government entities,” says Dr. Wilson. “They are in a time of need. We've supported fundraising efforts that the families start.”
 
“All of our families matter and we really fight for us,” says Margaret Wilson.
 
“In the last few years, our government hasn't been very kind or welcoming to immigrants,” says teacher Mazei. “I hope when our immigrant families are at El Sol that they feel safe and they feel supported and valued as members of our community. It's a special place.”
 
A small world, after all
 
Dr. Wilson, who is expecting her first baby in December, says she plans on serving as El Sol's principal “as long as they'll let me.” As a former dual language teacher at Lincoln International Studies School, she continues to work hard to ensure the El Sol students leave the program fully bilingual and bi-literate.
 
Dr. Natalie Wilson, El Sol Principal, is a strong advocate of dual language immersion programs.“I want my child to be an El Sol student,” she says. “I have an investment in this program. I believe in dual language education. The parents of eleven years ago are right. This is where the world is headed.”
 
She hopes in the future to see dual language immersion to spread to other schools in the district. “We live in a world today that if we don't start reaching out and extending understanding to the citizens around us and to those in other countries, we're not going to have the kind of political footing, the global footing that we want.”
 
For English speaking parents who might not have a second language, the school poses certain obstacles, but they are ones that families gratefully embrace.
 
“It certainly has its own challenges in trying to help your child learn in a language you don't understand and to promote them loving it and not feeling like it's too difficult,” says Margaret Wilson. “But the gains they get from learning the language far outstrip any stresses from learning it.”
 
Dr. Wilson agrees.
 
“America is not an island, but we act like it is. We expect everyone to speak English,” she says. “Our kids at El Sol are exposed every day to kids from other countries and their thinking is challenged. Their perspective on how to greet each other, how to navigate these cultural differences day to day make them able to navigate the world, not just our country.
 
“This is the direction every school should be going. I'm proud to be the leader of a school that will produce people who can exist in multiple settings and feel comfortable, with no qualms.”
 
Margaret Wilson's daughters say they found it hard at first to understand what the teacher was saying when speaking in Spanish, but it's become easier. “I really like that I'm learning a new language and that I can always speak it a lot,” says Barbara, a first-grader. Her sister, Zanaya, a third-grader, says knowing a second language turns out to have its immediate advantages. “I can say something to my friends and my dad doesn't know what the heck I'm saying.
 
Like most children, what the girls appreciate most about school are the specials, like art and music, and seeing their friends and teachers. Wilson also has a kindergartner, Jasmine, who started El Sol this fall. Wilson says she appreciates the way in which the school is helping her children be citizens of the world.
 
“When my youngest is old enough to appreciate it, we are going to go to a Spanish-speaking country and they will experience the language in a real way and it will cement their fluency. And then they're going to have to help me!

Photos by Taylor Scamehorn, unless otherwise indicated. See more of her work here.

Read more articles by Theresa Coty O'Neil.

Theresa Coty O’Neil is a freelance writer, editor, and writing teacher with over two decades of covering people, places, and events in the Kalamazoo community. She is the Project Editor of On the Ground Kalamazoo.
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