It’s A Small World

The International School of Arizona offers global-sized language training to our tiniest citizens and still remains appealingly small itself.


Published by: AZ Society, September 2008

Sometimes when Liz Vasquez drops her four-year-old triplets off for pre-school at the International School of Arizona, she feels as if she’s pulled into the passenger unloading zone in a bustling international airport.

“Seriously, that’s what it feels like,” says the busy ER nurse. “You go there, drop them off, and people are speaking French, German, Spanish. There are all types of languages in the air. It’s really beautiful.”

Adam D’Angelo, who has three children enrolled in the same north Scottsdale private school, compares the experience to some of the oversees traveling he’s done for the global auditing giant PricewaterhouseCooper.

“Sometimes when you walk into that school you feel like you’re entering another country,” he says. “There are 130 children actively speaking other languages, and sounding very natural. Let’s just say it does not escape me how special that place is.”

Visiting the International School of Arizona could also be compared to floating through the “It’s A Small World” ride at Disneyland, given the age of the children enrolled. While it’s common today to find French and Spanish taught at the high school level, ISA is unique in that it offers a full language-immersion program to children as young as two and continues through fifth grade. On this particular Monday, tiny tots are rehearsing for two upcoming programs – performing scenes from Snow White in Spanish and Bee Movie in French – and strolling the halls of the facility near the 101 and Shea Boulevard can indeed feel like floating through Walt Disney’s round-the-world roundelay, as the languages lyrically overlap in pitch-perfect native pronunciation.

“The reason children are able to reproduce the sounds that adults aren’t able to when they learn languages later on, is because when children learn languages in the first five years of life, all sounds are new, and they don’t inhibit their learning,” explains Michelle Borie, the school’s director. Borie cites studies in the speech and hearing sciences that suggest children are born with the ability to soak in the sounds used in all languages, but eventually begin to discriminate only the sounds of their native tongue, losing touch with the key sounds to other languages. “If you don’t hear them when you’re young, the chances of you being able to duplicate sounds you’ve never heard before decrease the older you get.”

Obviously, a lot of scholarly thought has gone into the ISA’s methodology, which teaches the standard curricula required by state and federal educators but does it mostly in French or Spanish, depending on which track parents choose for their children (presently, only French is offered all the way up to fifth grade, but plans are for the preschool Spanish track to grow with its students through all elementary levels as well).

“We’re not so different from other schools,” Borie insists. “The kids are learning addition and division and everything else they’re learning in the other schools, only they’re learning it in a foreign language.”

But there’s also a lot of fun in being immersed in a second language, and the social part of being around teachers and other kids all talking differently takes advantage of a child’s love of game-playing.

“Peers are great motivators,” Borie says. “So the kids look around their environment and say, ‘I need to speak like them. That’s what they do here.’ And they do it!”

With all the demands already placed on kids, though, is it too much to ask preschoolers to master a second language while they’re still figuring out how to tie their shoelaces?

“That’s something only parents in America think,” says Karen Doerflein, who has two young boys enrolled in ISA’s French-track preschool and a baby daughter who’ll eventually join them. “When you travel to other countries, you find children who can speak English as well as their own language, because second-language learning is part of their education. As a whole, I think that’s one area where the United States lags behind.”

Like many of the well-heeled parents with young children enrolled at ISA – where preschool tuition starts at $5,400 a year and grows to approximately $10,000 for grades 1 through 5 – Doerflein, who co-owns Clive Christian and Julian’s Fine Cabinetry in the Gainey Village Shops with her husband Mark, believes language learning is essential in an increasingly global economy.

“Our plan is to move to Europe for a year, and we wanted our children to become affluent in a second language,” she says, making an unintentionally ą propos slip. Today, fluency in other languages can most certainly lead to affluence – in any language.

“I work internationally, and English is the predominant language, but it’s not the only language,” says D’Angelo. “In the business world, it’s still mostly English and French. Now Asia is coming up, too, and Chinese and Mandarin will probably be the next big languages to learn.” (To keep pace, ISA has begun offering a Chinese summer camp, combining cultural activities with language lessons. German instruction, originally planned as a third immersion track, is now also offered as a summer camp.)

Canadian-born Liz Vasquez, who married into a Hispanic family where nobody, ironically, spoke their native tongue, admits Spanish is not yet the language of high finance. Nevertheless, she enrolled her triplets in the Spanish track primarily to appreciate their heritage, believing any language learning is as beneficial as the next – a tenet the research supports.

“I think that if my kids learn Spanish now, they’ll be open to learning any other languages in the future,” she says. “They’ll be like, ‘Hey, I can learn French! I can learn Mandarin! I already know another language.’”

D’Angelo agrees. “As long as they’re learning a second language, they’ll be better equipped to learn a third or a fourth,” he shrugs. In fact, for the D’Angelos, one of the most appealing things about the International School is not only its global goals but also its small, family-like structure.

“To tell you the truth, we’d probably have them in this school even if they only taught English, because the small class sizes they offer is almost unheard of.”

Founded ten years ago by a Portugese immigrant and his French wife as a way to continue their own children’s French-language education, ISA’s growth has pretty much followed the development of its original 15 preschool members, adding grade levels as the children age. While enrollment has grown to nearly ten times its original roster in as many years, the non-profit, tuition-supported school still maintains an intimate 10-to-1 student-teacher ratio, and parents chip in to repaint classrooms, photograph the yearbook and clean up the playground.

“Our parents believe in our mission,” says Borie. “Most of them have the means to give their children everything, but they see this school as something particularly valuable. They really feel like they’re giving their child a gift for their entire life.”

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Photos by Mark W. Lipczynski

Nicholas Doerflein, 3, and his brother Alexander, 5, at the International School of Arizona.

L to R: Brenda Fleetwood, 2, Ana Victoria Moreno, 11, Blake Fleetwood, 8, teacher AnneCecile Scherer, Maria Victoria Mogollon, 11, and Camila Mogollon, 8, explore the world through books and language.