Spreading Spanish in Riverdale


When Julissa Martinez’s 5-year-old daughter was younger, she hoped to enroll her in an Italian immersion program. After finding one in Westchester, she drove to the area to drop her daughter off, but could not find the school building.

Then, she realized the teacher held the Italian classes in her home.

“I thought, oh my God, I could do that,” said Ms. Martinez, who has taught middle school and high school Spanish for the past 20 years and grew up speaking Spanish at home and English at school. “I saw a need for Spanish immersion in the community.”

Her discovery led to the opening of La Escuelita de Sofia two years ago, a program for 2 and 3 year olds. Four months ago, she moved the program from her own house into a house on Leibig Avenue. 

While the space has all the trappings of a typical nursery school — picture books, puzzles and toys scattered on a brightly colored carpet, children’s artwork lining the walls — the walls also showcase replica paintings of Spanish artist Joan Miró; sections of the room are labeled with signs in Spanish: “La Biblioteca” (the library); “Bloque de Juego” (Play Room); and a “Sala de Imaginación” (Imagination Room).

There is one important rule for the two and three year olds in the program: no English is allowed.

Along with two bilingual assistants, one of whom is her older daughter Isabel, Ms. Martinez speaks to the students in Spanish, teaches them words and phrases through music and reads Spanish books with them. She says she follows the curriculum that the two-and-three set in Spanish speaking countries would be engaged in at this age.

“They’re learning it in a comfortable, natural way, the way it’s supposed to be,” she said.

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