ILLIOPOLIS — In their hometown of Majadahonda, Spain, Maria Montanes and Alba Merida are used to walking almost everywhere.
“We have shops, malls, everything is walking distance,” Maria said.
“Here, when you go somewhere, you take the car,” Alba added.
The two girls, part of a group of 23 Spanish students who visited Sangamon Valley and Tri-city schools to start the school year, are the Spanish equivalent of sophomores in high school.
In Spain, said their teacher, Ana Vidal, the grades are numbered instead. Secondary school, or high school, is required only through the first two years. Most students choose to stay for the last two years, at which point they take a mandatory exam which determines if they will be able to pursue the career of their choice.
Maria wants to be a doctor, while Alba has not yet decided. However, if a student's scores are not good enough, they can take the exam again. Those second two years of secondary education are important to ensure students have the best chance to do well on the exam. Students who choose to pursue a vocational path will begin that training after age 16, instead of moving on to the final two years of secondary school.
“It's different than where we live in Spain,” Maria said. “Classes are much more easier. What we are learning now in Spain, the kids here are learning two years later.”
Because of that, Vidal said, the Spanish students spent their days following junior and seniors through classes, and knew the subject matter.
In Spain, the students have much longer school days, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a morning break and a long lunch break, long enough that students usually go home for lunch, Maria said. Sports are not part of the school day, and if students want to participate in sports, they have to do so outside of school hours, which makes their day even longer, plus they usually have two or three hours of homework every day.
Sangamon Valley German and Spanish teacher Joe Scanavino began the exchange program with German students through the German-American Partnership Program, where German students visit and stay with host families, and the American students visit in return the following spring. The program with German students proved so popular that families lined up to host, and Sangamon Valley students signed up for German classes in droves.
This year, the Spanish-American Partnership Program brought Spanish students, and the American students will visit Spain in June. Like the German students, Spanish students begin studying English very early, at age 5, though Vidal said the law has recently changed and Spanish kids will begin learning English at age 3. Maria and Alba speak English very comfortably and only occasionally have to stop and think of the word they want.
“I got in touch with Joe Scanavino, who had the exchange with Germany, and he's also the Spanish teacher,” Vidal said. “He wanted to start a Spanish exchange program also, and through friends we got in touch and started the Spanish exchange program. Our first exchange program was two years ago. We always come in September, and they come (to Spain) in June.”
Students stay with host families and when the Americans go to Spain in June, they'll stay with their exchange students' families.
Sangamon Valley schools even moved the date of homecoming to give the Spanish students the chance to experience it, said teacher Debby Hawkins, and that included participating in “pajama day” during Homecoming Week. That was a huge change for teens used to wearing uniforms to school, Vidal said.
“(In elementary school), the girls wear a white polo shirt, red jumper (sweater), red tights and a red (plaid) skirt,” she said. “Boys wear a red jumper, white polo shirt and gray pants. When they're older (in secondary school), they change to a blue jumper and blue tights for girls.”
Students who enroll for the second two years of secondary school in Spain can wear street clothes, she said. Their school, with 930 students, is also much larger than Sangamon Valley, where most students know each other.
The Spanish teens spent one day with elementary students, teaching them games and dances from Spain, and doing it in Spanish. Hawkins was impressed with how quickly the little ones picked up Spanish, and remembered the words and what they meant, she said.
“They read to them in both Spanish and English, taught them some typical Spanish dances, different things like that,” Hawkins said.