EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — She speaks Spanish with family members, but before enrolling in the Spanish for Spanish speakers class in the Egg Harbor Township schools, Alondra Martinez had not spent much time reading or writing in Spanish.

“At first, I couldn’t even read a book,” said Martinez, a junior at the high school. She is now in Obed Perez’ level 3 class, which is reading “Cronica de una muerte anunciada” or “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” by Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

“It’s hard, and it has magical realism, so you really have to pay attention,” Martinez said.

The Hispanohablantes (Spanish speakers) program began in 1998 as a way to help students who grew up speaking Spanish at home also develop reading and writing fluency.

The first classes had just 30 students. During the past decade, it has matured and grown, and now serves more than 220 students in grades seven through 12.

Other local high schools, including Vineland, Atlantic City and Absegami, have offered similar programs to meet the needs of students who may speak Spanish fairly well but still need training in reading, grammar and writing.

“These are students who need to improve their skills but get bored in a class with students who don’t speak Spanish,” said Michele Schreiner, supervisor of world languages for the Egg Harbor Township School District

Schreiner said most students in the program are heritage speakers, who were born in the United States but speak Spanish with family. Some are native speakers. A small number are not Hispanic but are willing to put in the extra work to develop their fluency. And it is work. The upper level classes speak only Spanish.

“If you talk in English, she will just say ’Que?’ (What?) until you speak in Spanish,” senior Wendy Moya said of teacher Yamilei Socorro, who teaches the freshman level 1 and senior AP Spanish literature classes.

Moya, a senior in the Advanced Placement class, said the work is challenging, especially when they have to analyze stories or poems.

“It’s like an AP English class, but in Spanish,” she said.

Senior Nicole Melo equated the class to a college-level course, and Schreiner said the students are reading books most students would not read until college.

Schreiner said all students in the district take Spanish in sixth grade. The teacher then recommends students for the Hispanohablantes class starting in seventh grade.

In middle school the students study Hispanic cultures, do readings and keep a journal in Spanish. In high school they also learn more history and study Hispanic civilizations. Throughout high school, they read books by authors from different Spanish-speaking countries and different time periods, which can be a challenge.

“Reading Cervantes in Spanish is like reading Shakespeare in English,” said Socorro, who said the courses offer “a little bit of everything.”

Typically, about 60 or 70 are recommended for the program in middle school, Schreiner said. This year, there are 25 high school juniors in the level 3 program and 15 in the AP class for seniors. Schreiner said a few students switch to French to add a third language.

The state graduation requirements include one year of a world language. Schreiner said most students in the Hispanohablantes program stay for two years. Those who stick with it for three or four years are typically looking to become truly bilingual and earn college credits by taking the AP exams in Spanish language and literature.

Senior Bryan Lopez admitted he sometimes has difficulty reading, but he is proud that he has stuck with the program and improved his skills.

“It was something I thought I couldn’t do, but I escalated myself to the honors level, then AP,” he said. “I’m really proud of myself.”

Contact Diane D'Amico:

609-272-7241