Rochester Innovators Series: Christina Valdez
Esta es Christina Valdez y ella es una innovadora de Rochester.
Christina is the founder and director of Listos Preschool and Childcare, Rochester’s first and only dual-immersion pre-K program. A former journalist, Christina started the program in 2015 with her two daughters in mind. The school — which offers a curriculum of art, math, science and other core subjects taught in both Spanish and English — now employs six full-time educators and serves more than 40 students.
“We had to think about: how are we going to raise our child to be bilingual? We looked into many different approaches, and really wanted it be education-focused, and there just wasn’t a program in Rochester that really fit our needs,” says Christina. “And we knew there were so many other families like ours that want their child to grow up bilingual; that they either need to be, or they have that interest."
With the support of her husband, Miguel, Christina was able to step away from her career and go back to school and study early childhood development. She spent a full year learning and putting the program together before taking the leap and launching as a nonprofit.
“It was Miguel and I in the beginning; just the two of us with this idea,” she says.
We recently met up with Christina to learn about her vision for Listos, as well as the benefits of preparing students to be bilingual from an early age. Minor edits were made for flow and clarity.
Why was it important to you that your children were fluent in both languages at an early age?
Number one, so they could speak to half of their family; so they could speak to their grandparents, and aunts and uncles, and cousins. But number two, just because growing up in the world and knowing another language, you’re going to have so many more opportunities — for careers, for education, for travel, for just understanding the world.
Also, it’s easier, when you look at how your brain development happens, to learn a language as a child. That’s when your brain is focused on learning language … you can still learn new languages as an adult, but it becomes more difficult.
So take us inside the classroom. How does this work?
It’s 50/50. We have an English teacher and a Spanish teacher in each classroom. And then they switch off. The English teacher will lead a large group just completely in English, and then the Spanish teacher will lead a large group. And then they switch off … so they get English and Spanish every day. And it’s not just learning Spanish … they’re jumping right into concepts like math, letters and science in both languages.
What kind of results are you seeing so far in the classroom?
We’ve seen children come in with no Spanish exposure at all; so they arrive at age three or four having never really heard Spanish before. And each at their own rate, they have blossomed. At first, they’re a little shy … but then all the sudden, they’re repeating in Spanish and then they’re using their own Spanish. So it’s fun to see them grow and blossom … Then, because we’re dual immersion, some of the children come in speaking Spanish already, then they’re learning English while they’re here. And they learn English so fast.
Looking to the future, do you see Listos growing?
It’s always a possibility to do more classrooms. At the same time, we’d like to grow by doing more community development. We just received a grant from the Rochester Area Foundation to do a community literacy project. So we’re going to be really focusing on helping families who do speak Spanish at home to be supporting their child’s literacy in Spanish — because all of those skills they learn in Spanish transfer to English.
What was it like starting this program from scratch?
You have this idea of what it’s going to be like, then it becomes a lot more work than you ever expected. It was probably good I didn’t know exactly everything it was going to entail because I probably would have been like, ‘oh no, that’s too much.’ There are so many different aspects of what you’re working with — when you’re working with children, when you’re working with families, when you’re working under state guidelines.
Do you have any advice for others who want to do something similar?
I'm not one to really give advice since I'm still in a huge learning curve. But if I did have any advice it is to remember that we are all in this together. There is power in numbers and by working together we can make a difference. Rochester is embarking on a Cradle to Career initiative to ensure the best future outcomes for our children. The assets that this community has is awe-inspiring. Bringing it all together will have a huge impact.
What has been the most rewarding part of the experience so far?
Just seeing the growth of an idea become reality, and to see the amazing support we have gotten from so many people, and to see the children growing .. so seeing something that grew from nothing into something that’s getting a great reception, and getting children really excited about school, and getting families involved with their children’s educations.
Any final thoughts?
I do want to give huge credit to Peace United Church and the Listos Board of Directors for making Listos a reality. Truly this school could never have started without them.
Rochester Innovators is a nine-part series being published in partnership with Destination Medical Center.
Cover photo by William Forsman