SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — As you walk the halls of Rosa Parks Elementary, you’ll hear a mix of Spanish and English as kids arrive for the first day of school.

Third grader Lincoln Oien started his morning classes in English and will end the day in Spanish. He’s attended the two-way immersion program since kindergarten.

“It’s fun, because I get to learn Spanish and I learned a lot. And I really did in kindergarten. I didn’t even know what my Spanish teacher was saying,” Oien said.

Now, the third grader is fluent in Spanish.

Recently, Oien attended a friend’s birthday party where he was able to practice his Spanish with the family. 

“So, my friend told his dad I know Spanish and then we just started having a conversation,” Oien said.

Moments like those make Principal Kiersta Machacek proud of the school’s language immersion program.

“They’re biliterate. I mean, that’s crazy. That’s crazy to think we have five-year-olds that are biliterate,” Machacek said.

Machacek explained that in the school’s program, students spend half of their day learning in English and the other half in Spanish. The teachers don’t veer from their native language meaning that the students are fully immersed in either English or Spanish to help them become fluent in both.

By the end of kindergarten, students are expected to know Spanish words and small phrases. As they move into first grade, they learn more phrases and begin to answer questions in either Spanish or English depending on which teacher they are with. 

“And then in second grade, they’re in full sentences and, and even some dialogue back and forth with the teacher in Spanish and or English,” Machacek said.

Not only are the students learning a new language, but they’re being introduced to new cultures and learning to embrace differences in others.

“Our kids come in, and they know nothing like they don’t, they don’t see differences, they see friends,” Machacek said. 

The Spanish-speaking teachers at Rosa Parks, as well as Hayward and Sonia Sotomayor, come from all over the world. Their varied backgrounds provide students with a cultural education about their teachers’ home countries.

Markel Rios first started at Sonia Sotomayor as an intern five years ago. He enjoyed his time in Sioux Falls so much that after returning to his home country of Spain to finish his degree, he returned back to Rosa Parks Elementary to teach kindergarten full-time.

“I do really like the community here, especially what I know about this program, which is built of a lot of families, different cultures,” Rios said. “I think that it’s one of the things that made me just realize that this is what I want to do. I really wanted to come here because in our classroom, all the cultures are celebrated.”

Having teachers from all over Latin America brings many different cultures to the school to celebrate and learn from, Rios and Machacek said. That also enriches the students learning as they are interacting daily with people from all backgrounds.

“They talk about how they lived or their school, and our kids learn there’s more than Sioux Falls, there’s more than their house and their families, and they just get to hear about it, learn about it,” Machacek said. “I think it helps us develop empathy for others, I think it helps us develop just knowledge that we all should have, across the board of people, of humans. And they care. They talk about ‘my friends’, and they don’t see the differences”

Machacek explained that they try to ensure that classrooms are made up of half native Spanish speakers and half native English speakers. 

“And kind of the neat thing about that is– so, the Spanish speakers are like the leaders in the Spanish room because they know completely what’s going on. And they can help with their English colleagues or English friends. And then in the English room, the English kiddos can help out the Spanish kiddos and learn what she’s saying if they don’t get it,” Machacek said.

That helps build camaraderie between the students and bridge cultural and language barriers at young ages.

The two-way immersion program is growing, and Rios is excited about how many sections have been added in different grades. 

“I love meeting new people, meeting new teachers and growing and making this program successful together. I think that’s the most amazing thing we have here in town,” Rios said.

Rios added that it’s nice to have other Spanish-speakers in Sioux Falls to connect with and build a community.

“I think when I speak in Spanish, like it’s 100% me. Because sometimes, you know, like, I struggle if I need to speak in English or something super important, like this interview, for example, can be a little tricky. So it’s very nice to have a community in and out of the school to just hang out get to know each other learn from each other,” Rios said.

Hayward Elementary also offers a two-way immersion program for native English and Spanish-speaking students. At Sonia Sotomayor Elementary, the program is a full Spanish immersion for native English-speaking students to learn completely in Spanish for the full school day with a handful of exceptions like physical education, music, library, and English Language Arts in third grade.