Metro Christian Academy pre-k teacher Ruth Penland teaches in her Spanish Immersion Program. Stephen Pingry/Tulsa World Magazine

Just months after starting pre-kindergarten in Metro Christian Academy’s new Spanish Immersion Program, 18 squirming 4-year-olds were on stage with fellow students to rehearse for their Christmas program.

Speaking in rapid conversational Spanish, teacher Ruth Penland instructed her class to ready themselves for their performance. On cue, the children lined up, quieted down and began singing the chorus of “Feliz Navidad.”

Penland’s class is the first in Metro Christian’s rollout of a Spanish Immersion Program track.

Because younger children learn language more easily than those who are older, Metro Christian introduced its program in pre-kindergarten. Each year, the school will add another grade until Spanish Immersion extends to the fifth grade.

“It is a gift to learn another language, and it is one we wanted to offer our students,” says Matt Buffington, Metro Christian elementary school principal.

The benefits are great. Brain development science has shown children who learn more than one language have greater cognitive skills than others, and they are more culturally aware and sensitive.

Ultimately, future job prospects are higher as demand for bilingual employees grows.

In Penland’s class, every subject — from math to science to reading — is taught in Spanish. Immersion is closest to the natural way children and infants learn language, such as through interaction with their family and immediate surroundings.

It was only natural to select Spanish because it is the second most widely spoken language in the world, Buffington says.

“Our prayer was to hire a native speaker to teach the class,” he says. “We were happy to find Ruth.”

Penland knows the value of learning other languages. Growing up in Colombia, she was required to take four years of English and two of French. She came to America as a missionary with a degree in chemistry and took a job teaching middle school chemistry in Dallas.

Eventually, Penland moved to Tulsa with her husband and started a family. When she saw the job posting for a Spanish teacher at Metro Christian, she applied immediately.

“I was amazed at how easily the children picked up Spanish,” Penland says.

A parent recently recalled arriving home and asking her child where her backpack was. Her child replied, “En la cocina.”

“The mom was surprised. And she had to figure out what that meant,” Penland says with a laugh.

Other area school systems offer language immersion programs, but Buffington said he believes Metro Christian is the only private Christian school in Tulsa to implement one.

“Part of our mission is to train and equip students to become servant-leaders,” Buffington says. “The Spanish Immersion Program fits that mission because it provides more paths for leadership and service.”

Nicole Marshall Middleton