Immersion for Spanish Language Acquisition Program


Durham, North Carolina

Serves Spanish heritage students in Pre-K through grade 12

Program Leaders

  • Susana Benites, Program Director of Education Programs
  • Cindy Salazar, Education Programs Manager

Program Description

ISLA Los Sábados

ISLA Los Sábados is the core program of ISLA. This weekly educational heritage language and cultural immersion program is for children ages 3 to 17 and provides an innovative curriculum based upon learning about one’s self, one’s culture, one’s societal structures, and the natural world. Progress is measured and based upon individual gains, which helps students to close the opportunity gap and opens doors for Hispanic/Latine youth, their families, and their communities. ISLA Los Sábados is free of charge to participants and targets underserved Spanish language heritage families. This program now enrolls over 200 students in grades pre-K through grade 12 at the St. Thomas More Elementary School in Chapel Hill, NC, every Saturday from 9 AM - 12 PM from October to June. ISLA Los Sábados offers quality Latin American language student-centered instruction, project-based learning, and includes exciting content requested by students and skills-building in heritage Spanish language learning.

Program Features


Framework – ISLA intentionally hires mostly native Spanish-speaking teachers with Latin American heritage. ISLA constantly uses quality innovative methodologies, such as valuing cultural funds of knowledge in education, open inquiry and self-promoted exploration, in an interdisciplinary approach. Our objective is to foster a sense of pride, self-confidence, and love for their Hispanic/Latine culture. The program is divided into 3 age groups: early childhood (Pre-K 3 & Pre-K 4), elementary and middle school (Kindergarten-grade 6), and jóvenes (grades 7-12). The well-researched ISLA curriculum includes strategies from the Latin American educational model that incorporates the stories, traditions, and geography of Latin American countries into lessons. ISLA's classes are inquiry-based and guided by our students' interests and curiosity. We also believe that students acquire a deeper knowledge through active exploration of real-world challenges and problems through project-based learning. ISLA also uses an integrated interdisciplinary approach to teach language, while supporting students’ development of their selves, cultural identities, and understandings of the larger world.

Subjects – ISLA believes that all children and youth can learn. All students are immersed in the Spanish language and culture through subjects that are not prevalent in Monday through Friday schooling: arts, science, literacy, and outdoor exploration. In our early childhood group, students learn through a play-based education, where we introduce them to cultural games and Latin American storytelling, providing students with a more advanced basic understanding of the Spanish language. In our elementary and middle school group, students learn through student-centered design for instruction, where they learn about themselves, their culture, societal systems, and the natural world. With our jóvenes group, students learn through service to the community in a project-based learning approach called ISLA Impacta. This program focuses on 3 main areas: social entrepreneurship, social-emotional well-being and leadership, and civic engagement.

Literacy – ISLA values the learning of reading, writing, and oral language skills in Latin American dialects while encouraging our Latine youth to preserve their heritage language through language-learning trends, such as Latin American history, Latin American folktales and legends, creative writing, cultural geography, and much more.

Assessment – ISLA is not standardized. We evaluate students’ individual progress by understanding their needs and interests to help give them ownership of their learning and then measure their personal progress in reading and comprehension. Since 2013, we have used an annual formative assessment in August/September to measure long-term recall called Independent Reading Level Assessment (IRLA) or Evaluación del Nivel Independiente de la Lectura (ENIL) to see the growth of reading comprehension skills that each student has developed from the beginning to the end of the academic year.

Learning Support – Maintaining a heritage language is important for children, grandchildren, and other relatives of immigrants and refugees to help them connect culturally and linguistically to their ancestors and their family’s history. Academic research has shown that a strong connection with our roots helps us learn and achieve academically.


ISLA Los Sábados student learning about Latin American heritage (Credit: ISLA NC)


ISLA Los Sábados students creating sounds with rain sticks during ISLA’s Art Month Exhibition (Credit: ISLA NC)

ISLA Los Sábados students dressing up in traditional Latin American dresses (Credit: ISLA NC)

ISLA Los Sábados students (Credit: ISLA NC)

ISLA Los Sábados students creating clay sculptures (Credit: ISLA NC)

ISLA Los Sábados youth selling Mexican treats to fundraise as their ISLA Impacta civic engagement project (Credit: ISLA NC)

ISLA Verano

ISLA Verano is an exciting opportunity for students in the ages of rising kindergarten through rising grade 5 students to learn Spanish through Spanish immersion at camp, including Latin American culture in a fun and interactive environment. At ISLA Verano, children are immersed in an exciting world where they speak the language while learning about the cultures of different Spanish-speaking countries through our “Un viaje de Aventuras” theme! Children are transported to Spanish-speaking countries by combining fantasy, culture, stories, and other fun summer camp activities.

Program Features


Framework - We believe children need exposure to different languages and cultures to gain an appreciation for the world around them. ISLA separates students into groups based on age and grade level and pairs them with a native Spanish-speaking teacher. Our focus is to provide outdoor instruction to children of all Spanish levels (unlike our heritage Saturday program, no prior knowledge of Spanish is required). ISLA’s Saturday curriculum framework is ensured through outdoor exploration, interdisciplinary approach, and Spanish and cultural immersion. ISLA Verano runs from Monday-Friday from 9:00AM - 3:30PM for 6 weeks during the summer.

Subjects - Each week, we explore a different Latin American country and its geography, gastronomy, and ecosystems through STEM, arts/crafts, and outdoor exploration.

Literacy - We promote Spanish oral, writing, and reading skills through language-learning trends, such as Latin American folktales and legends, creative writing, cultural geography, and more.

Assessment - Our current summer camp assessments are observational. We note progress each week with a boost of confidence, cultural awareness, and understanding of the Spanish language from the beginning to the end of the week for each child.

Learning Support - We offer volunteers who participate in “one-on-one’s” for students who do not feel comfortable speaking in Spanish. Teachers are also trained to help campers with normal summer camp conflicts and issues. Even though they are speaking only in Spanish, the teachers do understand and speak English, can understand communication from campers in English, and can mirror what the camper communicates to them in Spanish to help them learn Spanish.


ISLA Verano student showing off his Cuban flag and artwork (Credit: ISLA NC)


Students creating the flag of Paraguay at ISLA Verano (Credit: ISLA NC)


ISLA Verano kids playing together (Credit: ISLA NC)

Spanish Online at Schools

ISLA Spanish Online at Schools is a program offered during or after school to students either directly by self-pay, or by schools paying for our online program so that they can offer it for free to their students. Spanish Online gives schools an opportunity to offer Spanish language immersion to students in a familiar environment and provides a flexible schedule for both the school and the families participating. This program is designed to build a foundation of Spanish using Spanish immersion in instruction and to help students expand their Spanish language skills – all while building cultural awareness and understanding.

Program Features


Framework - Spanish Online classes are geared to the needs of our students, placing them in online classes based on their Spanish language abilities and goals. With small class sizes, our native Spanish-speaking instructors tailor their interactions and lessons to the level of each student. Developed by Dr. James J. Asher, Total Physical Response (TPR) models the way children learn their first language. TPR works by placing the language in a physical context that allows for comprehension without translation. Done effectively, with lots of repetition, TPR helps students develop comprehension and verbal skills. It is appropriate for young learners, as it is very kinesthetic. TPR also helps teachers achieve our objective of using Spanish at least 90% of the time when teaching. The Spanish Online curriculum incorporates TPR into the songs, games, and activities for each lesson. The Spanish Online lessons use a diversity of activities to target the multiple intelligences and ensure that each student is engaged with the concepts and vocabulary in the lesson at one time or another. Through this design, the Spanish Online curriculum helps set up each student for success.

Subjects - Our main goal is to make the learning process both fun and effective for students. By combining an engaging curriculum and dynamic activities, we bring Spanish language and culture to schools and students. Every lesson in the Spanish Online Curriculum has the same structure—Circle Time, Story Time, and Art Time. Children thrive when they have routine and structure. Language acquisition increases when they are able to take risks and experiment with language—and that happens when they are in a safe and comfortable environment such as ISLA online. The ISLA Spanish Online curriculum creates this by providing a consistent routine and structure. Students can predict what is going to happen next, and they know what is expected of them. Our Spanish Online curriculum teachers use movements and gestures, repetition, everyday objects, and illustration to give students lots of comprehensible input in fun and practical contexts throughout the songs, games, activities, literature, foods, and art projects. Students acquire Spanish naturally and easily, and this allows for a lesson that requires little or no translation.

Literacy - Reading children’s Spanish literature is a critical aspect of the Spanish Online methodology. A prerequisite for an effective Spanish lesson is the opportunity for students to connect with the content of the lesson. Children love books, and a great book creates an immediate connection for them. We have taken a lot of time to find quality children’s books to use in our lessons. The literature included in our storybook sets is authentic children’s Spanish literature, not basal readers, so students have the opportunity to engage with the content of the lesson through an authentic Spanish experience.

Assessment - At the end of every semester, we use performance rubrics and feedback forms focused on evaluating the personal progress of each student, including language comprehension, oral expression, and cultural competence.

Learning Support - Teachers are offered professional development training by ISLA, focused on curriculum and lesson planning to give them a better understanding of the strengths and learning challenges that students experience and the school and community they work with each semester.

Spanish Online at Schools students playing Lotería with their teacher (Credit: ISLA NC)

Collaboration Projects With Outside Organizations

ISLA has partnered with the Center for Racial Equity in Education (CREED); Education Justice Alliance (EJA); Exceptional Children's Assistance Center (ECAC), working to extend anti-racist education); El Futuro; and other local organizations, to design and implement advocacy strategies, parent workshops and resources, and much more. We have a very active parent group from the Los Sábados program. We’ve partnered with several of these organizations to seek the full support of the Leandro Plan, a decades-old case that obligates the state to provide all students access to “a sound basic education.” We believe that our continued collaboration with other like-minded organizations is vital to the growth of our community across the state. We want to share the resources and lessons learned and learn from new organizations that become part of such powerful collaborative work. We share the wish to continue to be part of a network of partners to advance public education for children of all ethnicities and backgrounds.

Faculty Development

ISLA actively supports quality professional development (PD) training for teachers, staff, and board members, to best prepare them for our Spanish and cultural immersion programming. We work with trained professionals in education to design in-house PD. We also require teachers and leadership staff to do child safety environmental training, leadership training, and CPR training.

Support Our Work

We need to augment the support for Spanish language instruction in culturally affirming contexts if we are going to expand our current programs to meet existing demand, to do more research to understand the evolving needs of Latine children and parents, and to share our expertise across the state, especially where we cannot deliver these programs effectively on our own. Long-term participation in cultural immersion programs can help students:

  • Develop greater cognitive flexibility, demonstrating increased attention control, better memory, and superior problem-solving skills
  • Be more aware of and show a more positive attitude toward diverse cultures and an appreciation of people across the globe
  • Be better prepared for the global community and job markets where being bilingual provides an economic advantage

Research shows there are approximately 290,626 Latine public school students in North Carolina, which makes up 21.1% of the student population (NC Public School Statistical Profile Database, 2023). This shows the value behind cultivating culturally affirming education spaces for students and advocating for the prioritization of high-quality education for all students.

Consider making a donation to support ISLA, so more students and their families can enjoy our Spanish language and cultural immersion programs. Make a donation today to support ISLA!

Program Contacts

  • Susana Benites, Interim Co-Executive Director and Director of Education Programs,
  • Cindy Salazar, Education Programs Manager,

ISLA Board of Directors Education Committee

  • Susana Benites - Spanish teacher, ISLA Educational Program Director, ISLA Co-Executive Director
  • Dr. Aerin Benavides - Associate Research Professor of Education, University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG), former ISLA President of Board of Directors
  • Jennifer de Lima - Middle School Spanish Teacher, ISLA Board Vice President
  • Allyson Cates Koopman - UNCG K-6 licensure NC graduate, former Spanish Immersion Teacher, former Executive Director of ISLA

Published: Friday, October 6, 2023