Melissa Page Peter, an Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO) member in Philadelphia, is founder of Mi Casita Preschool, which offers a creative, project-based Spanish immersion curriculum with the goal of developing a generation of culturally aware students who become lifelong learners. We asked Melissa about her experience starting this innovative preschool. Here's what she shared:
Tell us about the aha! moment when you realized you wanted to start a Spanish immersion preschool.
About six years ago while having brunch with friends, I was lamenting my experience in teaching Spanish and French to high school students. I couldn't get those teenagers to engage no matter what cool project I tried in the classroom. I was wracking my brain for new ways to get them excited about learning this beautiful language.
I explained to my friends how it had been so easy for me to pick up Spanish because I grew up in Texas, and my family often traveled to Mexico on vacation. I felt so fortunate to be exposed to Spanish at a much younger age than my students, which made learning it so much easier. That was my aha! moment. I realized that I could start a school for younger kids who were at the prime age for picking up another language.
Why were you uniquely positioned to bring this concept into reality?
I'm trilingual, and I've always had a love for languages. I never set out to teach. My first job was in marketing with Telemundo. I got my MBA while working there. Then I shifted gears after the 2008 economic collapse, started teaching Spanish, and got a Master's degree in Spanish education.
Looking back, though it was never my plan, I got the ideal education to start a Spanish language immersion school. It worked out really well. Once I identified a gap in the marketplace, I made the leap into entrepreneurship.
What were the biggest challenges in launching a Spanish-language immersion preschool?
Our first location opened in Philadelphia as the first immersion preschool in the area. Parents were understandably daunted by the idea of sending their children to a first-of-its-kind school where the kids would be part of what they saw as an experiment in early education.
To help them understand why preschool is the ideal time for kids to learn a new language, I did a lot of parental education around immersion and why it's beneficial for a child. I had to introduce an entirely new concept to families and why it would be a good fit for their child.
I conducted a lot of marketing and hosted information sessions. I went everywhere I could think of to connect with young parents--art school, Stroller Strides, baby-and-me classes, library story times--and invited people to attend our school's information sessions. I was very hands-on with parents and met them for coffee to explain what Mi Casita was and why our concept was strong.
That was five years ago in March 2015. Within three or four months, we had a waitlist! Now we have three locations and plan to open our fourth school later this year.
What makes preschool the ideal time to teach in an immersive environment?
Age 0 to 7 is the prime window for kids to learn languages because that's when their brains are most elastic. They're not scared to take on another language, so it's the perfect time to introduce a second or third language. When kids are young, they don't identify whether someone is speaking to them in a specific language, they just recognize the sounds and know that one person communicates using these sounds while another communicates with a different set of sounds. It's fascinating to watch how quickly the kids adapt in an immersive environment.
Our families are extremely supportive of their kids' new language skills. We've built a community of alumni so that families can get their kids together to practice Spanish outside of school and keep their skills strong. Some even attend bilingual elementary education programs.
What's the demographic of families in your school?
I call us the United Nations of preschools because we have such a variety of families. In addition to families that are passionate about education, we have many international families and students from marriages where one parent is a native Spanish speaker, and they want the kids to be able to communicate with that side of the family in Spanish. It's a very nice multicultural mixture.
Our students range in age from 3 months to around age 6 when they're about to enter kindergarten. So we're a hybrid between daycare and preschool in that respect.
Why are you so passionate about helping children learn a foreign language?
One of our missions is to develop citizens of the world. We believe that we're helping students and their families understand and appreciate the many benefits of having a vibrant multicultural experience.
We don't "teach" Spanish in the traditional sense--we speak to the kids in Spanish and back that up with explanatory gestures and facial expressions to help them get it, all day every day. All of our teachers are native Spanish speakers. It's not like learning Spanish in high school, where they teach the words for different colors one day and foods the next. We're a workbook-free school--no conjugating of verbs here. We provide project-based learning around science, math and art. We want everything the child does to be authentic, and they learn to speak Spanish along the way.
And it works. We get so many heartwarming videos from parents sharing how their children are speaking Spanish in a variety of contexts. One of our favorites is a little girl who came home from school one day and started singing all of the songs from her favorite movie, Frozen--in Spanish!