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Pima County School Superintendent Dustin Williams listens as Innovation Academy student Ellie Carter-Rogel reads her letter asking for second language classes at her school.

The Pima County School Superintendent’s Office and Amphitheater School District are considering offering second-language classes to elementary students after a letter from a local third grader caught Superintendent Dustin William’s attention.

In November 2019, Innovation Academy student Ellie Carter-Rogel wrote a letter to Williams describing the benefits of learning a second language as a child, and expressing her desire to see opportunities to learn Spanish at her school. 

“Speaking or learning a second language can benefit your brain, no matter your age. Why do we wait until middle school and high school?” Ellie wrote in her letter. “People who speak two or more languages have significantly better overall cognitive abilities than those who speak one. Isn’t this important to the future?” 

After reading the handwritten letter, Williams organized a meeting with Ellie, her parents, and her teacher Niki Tilicki on Jan. 24, where they developed an “action plan” to provide local students with second-language opportunities. The plan begins with organizing a second-language club for Innovation Academy, before possibly presenting the idea to the Amphi School Board and even taking it to the state level.

“I thought she had an excellent vision and her idea was top-notch,” Williams said. “Every adult I’ve known who’s tried to learn a second language has struggled, while every kid I’ve known picks it up so easily, and it sticks with them.” 

Ellie’s letter even listed some of the mental and health benefits of learning a second language, including better memory retention and concentration, as well as a lowered risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia. 

Jeremy Carter, Ellie’s father, said he was surprised with the response to Ellie’s letter, figuring the Superintendent might simply shake her hand and say “good job.” 

“He ended up meeting with us for about 40 minutes and really took the time to go over her letter, her research and her goals. He even took notes,” Carter said. “I was impressed and appreciated that he treated her and her idea with as much respect as he would a colleague’s. We ended the meeting by agreeing that the idea had merit and that Ellie, myself and Mrs. Tilicki would explore the start of a Spanish language and culture club at Innovation Academy.”

The forthcoming CASAS Club – Cultural Appreciation and STEM Achievement in Spanish Club – is expected to begin at Innovation Academy after school returns from summer vacation. Ellie and company are still waiting to hear from private and corporate foundations if their applications for seed funding have been approved. 

According to Carter, this money will be for purchasing workbooks and club materials. 

“From our meeting, the best bet was to establish a club, and once we had the information on how it operates, we could take it to a larger level,” Williams said. “I think the odds are good to even start a pilot program at a few schools.” 

Carter said Ellie’s interest in learning second languages stems from their family being bilingual. 

“She is constantly seeking to learn new Spanish words, phrases and songs, and lately has begun working harder on her Spanish written skills,” Carter said. “This was supercharged when we all went to Guatemala last July. It was her first time exposed to a new country and she took to it like a fish to water.” 

Carter said Ellie was frustrated because, while she learns Spanish at home, she wanted a more structured environment that would allow her to improve grammatically. 

“Then it occurred to her that there may be other kids out there who would also like to learn a new language and cultures and, since there is such a large Latino population in the County, it all made perfect sense to focus on Spanish,” Carter said.

This interest in other cultures coincided with Tilicki instructing the class to practice their formal writing skills by writing and sending letters. When Tilicki learned of Ellie’s interest in Spanish classes for elementary kids, she encouraged her to write to Superintendent Williams.

“Ellie did extensive research on how learning a second language could benefit students; and, she came out with some amazing points backed by science that convinced all of us that she had something important to say,” Tilicki said. “Now that Ellie was organized, she put her thoughts into a very strongly worded letter to our Pima County Superintendent. Ellie’s passion for the idea, and the knowledge she had regarding language learners fueled her in a way that was powerful. She reworked her letter numerous times to be sure that it was perfect and spoke loud and clear.”

The CASAS Club is planned to be a culture and STEM club as well as a language club, reinforcing STEM classroom curriculum with Spanish and Latin American cultural learning.

“We must understand that this amazing child has helped us to make our community a better place,” Tilicki said. “By learning that a language barrier can cause discomfort, Ellie persevered to learn more so that she could communicate and belong. Through this experience, she realized that she could change her world and help others by talking to people like Dustin Williams who advocate for children, thus, making this a better place for all of us.”

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