When Karla Koziura decided to send her two children to Puerta Abierta, Evanston’s only fully Spanish-immersion preschool, she said she was hoping to normalize bilingualism for her kids.
“I grew up in the states feeling different and a little bit embarrassed that my mom spoke with an accent or that we had different, weird food at home,” Koziura said. “(Puerta Abierta) set in place that it was very normal to speak another language.”
Koziura’s passion for Spanish immersion from a young age for her children is shared by many families in Evanston. Since its founding in 1997, Puerta Abierta has grown from just over 10 students to nearly 50 enrolled. Founder and Director María Weisgal said Puerta Abierta has always prioritized an inclusive educational approach.
Providing financial support for families that could not afford a preschool education is paramount to the school’s mission, according to Weisgal.
“The name of the school is Puerta Abierta, and that means ‘open door,’” Weisgal said. “I chose that name because when we founded it, I decided that we were never going to say no to a child because they couldn’t pay.”
Hemenway United Methodist Church, the church in which Puerta Abierta is located, provided financial support in the beginning years of operation, but the school itself is secular. Now, in addition to state grants, parents of children and alumni fundraise to help those with monetary constraints, according to Weisgal.
That all helps fund a culturally-aware education, Andrea Martinez, Weisgal’s office assistant, said. Throughout the year, children engage in multicultural activities, including an annual festival.
“At the beginning of the school year, we talk about our families… how we came from different backgrounds,” Martinez, who is also a Puerta Abierta parent, said. “So we had kids bring in maps where they… tell us where their parents or grandparents came from.”
Beyond teaching children about their familial roots, Puerta Abierta supports the families themselves, according to Liliana Rozo, whose son attended Puerta Abierta a few years ago.
Rozo said preschool staff and teachers provided her and her son with more than just an educational opportunity. As a single mom, Rozo arrived in the country seven years ago and faced a custody battle shortly after moving to the United States.
“The school made a difference in my case,” Rozo said. “They were absolutely comprehensive, caring and loving during my (court) process, and they supported us as a family.”
Apart from the inclusive environment that Puerta Abierta provides for families, Spanish immersion sets it apart from other preschools in Evanston. Weisgal said she wanted to provide a space where children can learn Spanish even earlier than Kindergarten.
Koziura, whose two children are now in high school, said the experience of learning Spanish in preschool rewired her kids’ ways of thinking.
“If there’s a word with a Latin root, they might figure it out because of the Spanish (they learned),” Koziura said. “They make these connections and use associations with language that maybe somebody else might not.”
While linguistic development at Puerta Abierta is a core strength, staff support and parental engagement build a foundation for the preschool’s community, one that some parents, such as Koziura, are still a part of.
“We made a ton of (family) friends at Puerta Abierta preschool, friends that we’re still friends with today,” Koziura said. “It really just created a base for us and a foundation for our whole social life.”
This content was originally published here.