Spanish professor emerita Elsa Cortina, remembers double dates with Fidel Castro and his girlfriend in the 1950s. Her husband and Castro were sometime roommates and friends. But Carlos Cortina spoke out publicly against his friend when Castro’s revolution seized Cuba in May 1961. Fearing for their lives, the Cortinas fled. That planted the seeds of another kind of revolution that none of them could have foreseen.
"The Lord works in mysterious ways," Elsa Cortina said.
The couple went first to Miami, then to Grand Rapids. By 1966, Elsa was teaching Spanish at Calvin. In 1983, as department chair, she established the college’s semester in Spain, a program that Stacey Washburn Vanden Bosch ’92 says changed her life. [See a video of Elsa Cortina, "In Her Own Words."]
“I realized how important it is to be immersed in a language to truly learn it,” she said, “and that language and culture are inextricably intertwined.”
Her master’s in linguistics convinced Vanden Bosch that the window for learning a language opens widest when children are very young. So, once married to Chris Vanden Bosch ’92, with children of her own, she wanted to raise them in a Spanish-speaking country. When that didn’t work out, she looked for a way to immerse her children in Spanish where they lived, near Holland, Mich.
She gathered other homeschool parents she knew, a group that included Becky Hooker Schrotenboer ’89 (who also went to Spain with Professor Cortina), Laura Newton Senti ’90 and Brian DeVos’85 and Kristy Monsma DeVos ’86.
“We all wanted to open our children’s eyes to a broader world,” Vanden Bosch said. “When I was a child, God put the love of the Spanish culture into my heart through my best friend, Alexandra Lucar ’92. But she never fit in the mainstream Dutch culture of our Christian school.”
In 2003 the parents started a Spanish-speaking preschool with eight children and hired a native speaker to teach them. They called their school El Puente, The Bridge.
“Most important for us,” said Vanden Bosch, “was equipping our kids to be a bridge across cultures, to show our neighbors that in Christ we love them enough to learn their language.”
After two years El Puente had grown to 50 children, and the oldest were ready to start first grade. Parents began to look for a school system—public, charter, Christian—willing to absorb their Spanish immersion program. They got a warm, immediate yes from Principal Bill Van Dyk ’76 and the board of Zeeland Christian School.
“Everybody is surprised that a conservative community like ours has the country’s first Protestant language immersion program,” Van Dyk said. “But 20 years ago we were the first school in the country to bring special-needs kids into regular classrooms. That convinced us that different isn’t bad; it’s good. God created us to learn from each other.”
The first El Puente preschoolers are now in fifth grade. A total of 225 students, preschool through grade five, are enrolled in the program, all of them learning in Spanish the same content that their grade-level counterparts down the hall learn in English. Eleven of their 15 teachers are native speakers, ensuring that the children themselves speak like natives and appreciate Spanish culture.
Nancy Buist Pyle ’03 helps Stacey Vanden Bosch coordinate El Puente at Zeeland Christian School. Standardized achievement tests, like Michigan’s MEAP, show that the Spanish immersion students rank at or above English-instructed students at the school in all content areas. What’s more, Pyle said, “Research shows these students’ brains develop different synapses; it will be much easier for them to acquire a third and a fourth language.”
The success of El Puente has brought other schools calling. Four Christian schools in the Midwest have begun programs modeled on it.
“Spanish immersion education brings us families that would otherwise homeschool or send their children to public or charter schools,” Bill Van Dyk said. “That’s important news for Christian schools, which are generally losing enrollment.”
At Grandville Christian, for example, which began an El Puente program in the fall of 2009, 84 percent of the students who enrolled were from families new to GCS.
While academic and enrollment gains are important, to Stacey Vanden Bosch it’s the worldview that El Puente brings that makes it revolutionary. “For our students, it’s visible, it’s real, everyday, that all people are part of God’s beloved family.”