Shelley Borror Jackson, head of the International Academy of New York (one of the leading language immersion schools in the country) is constantly amazed by the way her students pick up on additional languages, almost as though through sheer osmosis. For instance, some of the students enrolled in the Spanish program have, seemingly overnight, learned to count to 10 in Mandarin.
“They’re swimming in it,” she said. “It’s in the air.”
Located just steps away from Central Park in New York City’s Upper East Side neighborhood, the academy provides a bilingual curriculum to students aged 3 to 8 in either Mandarin or Spanish. Here, students learn literacy in two languages, mathematical competence, art, music, science and social studies.
The academy intends to expand its curriculum as its student body ages, growing all the way through eighth grade. At that point, Jackson says she’s hoping to initiate travel opportunities for her middle-school students, as well as build a more advanced curriculum that’ll encourage kids to be even more outward-thinking.
Alba Sanchez teaches Spanish at the school. Video: Dylan Lyons
It’s a tightly woven family at the moment. There are 22 students currently enrolled in the program, and several of them have parents working as faculty at the school.
“It is very much like a family,” said lead classroom teacher Ryan-O’Neil Edwards. “For good and bad, we’re like aunts and uncles to these kids.”
Edwards quit teaching full-time in 2012 to practice music, and he wasn’t even looking for a full-time job when he met Jackson. He was so inspired by Jackson, her vision and the actualized diversity mission of the school that he decided to don his teachers’ tie once more.
In the Mandarin program, there are Chinese, Ecuadorian, Haitian, Ethiopian, Austrian and Australian kids. The Spanish students are Israeli, Egyptian, Ecuadorian and Argentinian, among others. Many know as many as three to four languages. The teachers are as diverse as the students, hailing from countries including China, Spain and Jamaica.
“Diversity isn’t necessarily something you can see,” Jackson said. “We’re also really committed to socioeconomic diversity. We’re committed to having a range of faiths: Muslims and Buddhists and Christians and atheists. We want diversity of all sorts, and that’s definitely a motivation for why people choose us. People come here and say, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re really doing it. You know, other people talk about it, but you’re really doing it.'”
“Another really important feature of the school is the diversity of the faculty too,” she added. “I think it’s so important for the kids to be able to come to a school and every day be able to find an adult who looks like them, but likewise, I think it’s really important to get comfortable with people who look all kinds of ways. You really have to look in unconventional places to get a faculty like that.”
A Friday morning at the academy might involve Spanish-language kids gathering for a music lesson, and Mandarin-language kids practicing their hulusi (a traditional Chinese flute) for their upcoming Lunar New Year performance.
Friday morning Chinese music class. Video: Dylan Lyons
Jiaoyue Lyu, the Chinese music teacher at the academy, was a professional concert musician before she got involved at the school. One of the things that surprised her most was how quickly and eagerly the kids warmed up to foreign instruments they’d never seen before.
“I think in New York City, it’s a very diverse community, and people come from different countries and backgrounds,” Lyu said. “Teaching kids bilingually is the best way to have them understand different cultures and backgrounds, to show respect to our community.”
Edwards hopes that these values will stick with the kids as they grow out of the program. Beyond teaching the values of diversity and acceptance, the school also presents integrated curriculums, like a space study that’s currently underway.
“We’re trying to get them to understand that we live in a city that’s in a state that’s in a country that’s on a planet that’s in a solar system that’s in a galaxy — trying to freak them out with how small they are,” Edwards said.
One thing that’s surprised Edwards the most is that he’s absorbed more Spanish at the academy than he ever did in middle school.
“These kids, they have it down,” Edwards said. “I’m thinking in Spanish now. I’m at home, and I’m like, whoa. The kids say things to me, and I respond in Spanish without even noticing it.”
Of course, the parents who enroll their kids here may do so for different reasons: perhaps to help preserve their native tongues, or to raise well-rounded kids who see the inherent value in respecting other cultures.
Edward Remache, Director of Finance and Operations at the academy, has a son enrolled at the school. Remache’s son lost his Spanish completely one summer when he went away to Massachusetts, but the academy helped him progress in both English and Spanish.
“His Spanish has improved immensely this past year,” Remache said. “He’s more comfortable speaking it at home without being prompted. He’ll start conversations now in Spanish, point things out. He’s even picking up Mandarin from his friends.”
So why Spanish and Mandarin? Well, it’s mainly in the numbers. There are 1.2 billion people who speak Mandarin in the world, and nearly half a billion people who speak Spanish. This is also in line with the reality that many schools in America are currently beginning to embrace, namely by phasing out French for Mandarin.
Though Jackson says her mission isn’t primarily to raise children who can work anywhere in the world, that’s an obvious byproduct of receiving a bilingual education. Beyond anything else, there’s simply “a different spirit” at the school.
“I’ve been an educator for over 30 years,” Jackson said. “What caused me to fall in love with the notion of an international school is that I saw the power of those friendships that would never have happened in any other setting. I think it’s almost impossible to disrespect a culture that gives you a friend. Suddenly there’s a face to that culture, and it’s not just a place on a map or a word in the news. You care about that place.”