By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published December 11, 2014
ATLANTA—Born in Mexico, Ameyaltzin Palomino came to the United States as a teenager speaking no English. She entered public school as an ESOL student, a special program to learn English for those with another native language.
“I was 13 years old. It was hard,” said Palomino.
It can be difficult academically and socially for ESOL students, being separated from peers or hearing comments. “That stops you” from learning new things, said Palomino.
When it came time to enroll her first son in preschool, Palomino asked herself, “How can I help him more?”
She discovered the Solidarity School, located off Northwood Drive. An independent Catholic preschool, Solidarity offers classes for 3- and 4-year-olds. The goal is to prepare children and parents for the school experience so that by kindergarten ESOL tracking won’t be necessary.
The children learn English in incremental levels of immersion and take part in Catholic faith formation as well as art and music, science, social studies and math.
Now a mother of four boys, ranging in age from 1 to 8, Palomino assists the teacher, Ximena Capinegro, in the 4-year-old class.
Her son, Noe, is a current student and her older sons also attended the preschool.
“I can see the difference,” said Palomino. “They are learning a lot. They have an open mind in everything.”
The older boys have varying interests. “I have a scientist and an astronaut,” she said. The youngsters have also talked about being policemen or firefighters when they grow up.
“Thanks, God,” said Palomino about how early education has better positioned her sons.
The boys also help the whole family improve their English skills at home. Palomino’s husband speaks Spanish at work, and their sons gently correct his English by telling him, “Dad, you’re not saying that right.”
Solidarity School is tucked in the back of a former shopping center close to where Roswell Road meets Northwood Drive. The preschool shares a building with Centro Católico, the Hispanic mission of Holy Spirit Catholic Church. The school operates independently with private contributions. Families pay a reduced tuition.
There are 35 students attending the school this year, and there is a waiting list, according to the school’s director, Dr. Jamie Arthur.
“Anyone that comes to the school is so taken in by the children,” said Arthur.
Dressed in uniforms of red shirts and khakis, the bright-eyed students were eager to share lines from their upcoming play on a recent school day.
“The King of Kings was born,” declared one child. “Come on. Let’s go to Bethlehem,” said another in near-perfect English.
“What is the most favorite thing to do here?” Capinegro asked the children as they circled around. Hands shot up as the children hoped to be first to answer.
“To play with my friends,” said Noe.
The 4-year-olds enjoy calendar activities, and their favorite book recently has been “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom.”
Faith is never far away. “We are learning the Our Father,” said Capinegro.
The children also learn about holy days, and a statue of Our Lady sits atop a table in the school’s entryway.
“We read stories when they are ready to go home,” said Palomino.
She added that by hearing stories they learn about the parts—the beginning, middle, and the solution.
Across the hallway, it was playtime as the 3-year-olds created different looks for Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, and compared mini-dinosaurs.
They excitedly showed their most recent art project: painted winter scenes drying on a nearby table.
Teacher Elvira Castro questioned them in both Spanish and English, and the children conversed going back and forth between the two languages. One student in the class comes from a French-speaking home.
The community surrounding Centro Católico and Solidarity School is primarily Hispanic. Castro said most of her students’ families are from Mexico or El Salvador.
The school day is from 8:40 a.m. to 1 p.m. and the children eat a snack and hot lunch while there.
Early education programs such as Solidarity’s can help smooth the transition to kindergarten.
“We’re setting the course for them,” said Arthur.
The goal is to increase academic success. “The dropout rate among Hispanics is high. It’s very sad,” said Arthur.
Solidarity School at one time also offered kindergarten, but it closed due to a lack of funding and the opening of nearby Lake Forest Elementary in 2009.
Parents make a commitment to volunteer at Solidarity School. Students are tested for preschool readiness and submit a birth certificate when applying.
“There is a great return rate,” said Arthur.
The preschool has many community partners, including Centro Católico, Holy Spirit Prep School student groups, Holy Innocents Episcopal School, Boy and Girl Scouts, and the Order of Malta.
Holy Spirit students teach a virtue each month, such as forgiveness or responsibility, and how to practice it.
“Order of Malta has been huge in supporting the school,” said Arthur.
Members helped build bookshelves and the Order of Malta graduation ceremonies and a pageant.
There are ongoing needs at the preschool.
“We would love to have more philanthropic participation,” said Arthur.
Immersion programs don’t mean the children leave their cultural traditions behind. Students celebrate traditions, such as a posada in Advent, the re-enactment of Mary and Joseph’s search for a place for Jesus to be born.
“We preserve their culture,” said Arthur.
Solidarity School has a broader reach as well.
“It’s also helping the parents,” explained Arthur.
Becoming accustomed to the routine of homework, with instructions often in English, helps parents learn to interact with teachers.
Arthur said one student recently accompanied her sick mother to the emergency room.
“The child was helping her to talk,” said Arthur.
While Centro Católico is a separate entity, the two programs collaborate.
“It’s nice to have the support of Centro,” she said.
The garden area at the mission is the only place of its kind for the community to gather.
Arthur was principal of the lower school at Holy Spirit Prep School when approached about overseeing Solidarity School. She has been involved for 12 years.
“Service is part of me. I felt like it was God leading me to my next project,” said Arthur.
She does not speak Spanish herself, but that has not been a hindrance.
“I fell in love with the students. Language is not a barrier when you have a passion,” she said.
Students often come on the first day crying or very reserved. They generally leave the school confident and prepared.
“It’s been just a joy in my life,” said Arthur about her involvement.
To support the educational endeavors of the Solidarity School or to learn more, contact Dr. Jamie Arthur at email@example.com or 678-906-5412.