A bilingual community hub

Joyce Preschool encourages Latino children and families to embrace cultural roots while adapting to life in Minneapolis

The mother and the daughter sit together at a round classroom table, hunched over a picture book of Spanish vocabulary words.

It’s a quarter to 9 on a Tuesday morning and as the first to arrive, they’ve smartly positioned themselves in the sole quiet corner, away from the three teachers who buzz around the brightly lit room as they prepare activities, search out sing-along cassette tapes, and set out toys.

The mother is anxious, she glances around occasionally as if she expects someone to ask her to leave. When this happens, her daughter, betraying preschool insistence, scowls and points again at the page. And the mother shakes her head.

Then her daughter says a word out loud. The mother understands. She repeats the word, haltingly, in a heavily accented voice. Her daughter wags her head up and down and smiles so wide you think her lips will leap from her face.

She’s teaching her mother English.

A few minutes pass and the classroom floods with children, some 20 tumble around the room and chatter in Spanish and English. The last remaining quiet corner disappears and with it the mother, her lesson over, her day just beginning.

The teachers corral the children and with that another day of class at the bilingual Joyce Preschool begins.

From single moms to Latino moms

Joyce, in the basement of Joyce Methodist Church on West 31st Street in the Lyndale neighborhood, opened in 1966 as a volunteer-run preschool that served single mothers who couldn’t afford early-childhood education. In 1994, Joyce teacher Sharon Dill, attuned to the neighborhood’s gentrification and the rapid influx of Latino immigrants a few miles east, suggested that Joyce serve these new low-income families.

Dill’s idea was this: Convert to a dual-immersion preschool. A year later, Joyce did just that. The program exploded, and soon Joyce secured consistent funding and abandoned the volunteer model.

Dual-immersion means that classes are taught in both English and Spanish. At Joyce, each class is balanced among native English speakers, native Spanish speakers, and children fluent in both languages. About half the kids, mostly from Mexican families, are on scholarships. The other half come from middle-class families — white, Latino, all kinds — looking to give their child a head start on living and thriving in a multicultural world.

Joyce focuses on many things, but if you had to pick one that the school values above all else, it’s preparing the Spanish-speaking kids as best they can — for kindergarten; for their families; for the enlightening, indifferent and occasionally hostile world they’ll soon step into, ready or not.

“The kids will learn English, there’s no question about that,” said Laura Johannson, the school’s executive director. “But the question is, can they retain enough Spanish so that they can continue to have connections to their extended family, to their cultural roots in this country.

“Joyce is a place that says you can be part of this country, you can learn English and get ready to succeed in school, but you don’t have to leave your language behind. You don’t have to leave your culture behind. You can do both.”

First preschool, then something greater

When Dill proposed her idea, things were different; it was a different world, practically — when ICE was something you put in a drink, “don’t ask, don’t tell” was about sexuality and not skin color, and meatpacking plants were attractive employers for undocumented workers.

Then, Joyce was just a preschool. These days, everyone associated with Joyce — parents, teachers, administrators — refers to the school as “a safe place” as often as they call it anything else. And that’s not just because the school only records the most necessary pieces of information about students and parents and never asks for documentation.

It’s still a preschool, sure, but it’s a community hub, an extended family, a place to ask questions and get help. A school for parents as much as for their children.

“It’s so small, and everyone’s so close,” said Luis Cuyun, a former Joyce parent, “that it forces interaction.”

There’s a monthly meetup group for Spanish-speaking Joyce parents, where guests educate them on everything from the public school system to how to properly discipline and reward their children. It’s mostly mothers at the meetings, some of them carrying their infants on buses for an hour or two, some of them walking straight from work. Afterward, they share food and commiserate and catch up.

The school hosts holiday and other special events, where parents bring casseroles and tamales and sing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and “Feliz Navidad”; where they watch their children play and speak freely with each other in two languages and realize that this place is on to something, that if they’re watching the future leaders of their communities toddle around this basement then things are definitely looking up.

And parents are asked to be as much a part of the learning process as teachers, which is no small accomplishment, considering that in Mexico and across Latin America education is traditionally left to the educators and parents don’t dare interfere.

Johannson recounted a story of a parent volunteer she once asked to lead a demonstration for the kids. The woman was worried; she had no formal education and wasn’t sure what she could do.

Johannson asked her what she did at home. I’m a seamstress, the woman told her. Johannson gave her a suggestion.

Weeks later, the woman returned with elaborate patterns for making a vest. The children spent the better part of the morning cutting and sewing their paper patterns. The woman beamed the whole time.

Sometimes, just a preschool

If Joyce is a microcosm for this country’s immigration debate, nobody bothered to tell the kids on that recent Tuesday morning in that basement, amid a kaleidoscopic array of posters and books in two languages.

They played, boys with trucks and clay and girls with dolls and coloring books. They listened as Carol, one of the teachers, read from picture books. They went into the next room and dashed around and climbed on playground equipment and kicked around balls.

Then they sat down to lunch, where discussion revolved around whose parents gave them what and the trade value of a package of cookies.

They talked interchangeably in Spanish and English, and sometimes one would talk in English and the other would answer in Spanish and the conversation would continue like that, without either of them even noticing.

Then class was over and, one by one, the parents and grandparents and other relatives arrived, took the hands of the future leaders of their communities, and led them up the stairs into the daylight.

Contributing writer Brian Voerding lives in Whittier.