ISLAOn the day before Three King’s Day, a Mexican holiday celebrated Jan. 6, Allyson Cates’ students have left their shoes at the door as instructed. A parent tells them the story of the kings, and gifts are left in the children’s shoes according to tradition.

This is ISLA, an innovative Saturday school for young native Spanish speakers. Cates, who graduated from UNCG’s School of Education last May, made the connections here that led her to Chapel Hill and ISLA.

The methods used by ISLA are unique, part of a new wave in learning theory: These children are learning to read and write — in Spanish. “Research has shown that when kids are able to read and write in their native tongue, that helps with learning a second language,” says Cates, ISLA’s lead teacher. “It really closes the achievement gap.”

ISLA, short for Immersion for Spanish Language Acquisition, is the brainchild of Aerin Benavides. Benavides, now working on her PhD in Teacher Education and Development at UNCG, designed ISLA as part of her master’s level instructional design coursework.

Benavides modeled ISLA after Chinese and Korean Saturday schools throughout the U.S. She recruited Cates, who also shares administrative responsibilities, to help get ISLA off the ground.

“Aerin had this idea for years,” Cates says. “She had tutored kids who were 8 or 9 years old, and she saw that they improved their English skills by writing and reading in Spanish.”

The theory is that strong reading and writing are transferrable skills that can serve students well in any language. Cates, fluent in Spanish primarily because she attended Greensboro’s Spanish-immersion elementary school, says it also preserves the children’s native language and builds cultural pride.

“The coolest part is that the parents stay during the lessons,” Cates says. “Through creativity and a sense of ownership, they are helping to build the program.”

Parents teach about native foods, clothing and music. They have taken it on themselves to study English while the kids study Spanish, and have even sold handmade jewelry to benefit the program.

ISLA meets from 9 a.m.-noon Saturdays at St. Thomas More Elementary in Chapel Hill. The group now includes 11 pre-K, kindergarten and first-grade children recruited through area schools and churches. They come from various Spanish-speaking countries, and live in Chapel Hill and outlying areas like Carrboro, Durham and Morrisville.

ISLA, a nonprofit endeavor, is free for students. Cates and Benavides are looking to expand the program, hiring more teachers and attracting more students. For more information on ISLA, visit or email Allyson Cates at


By Michelle Hines