The International School of Arizona in Scottsdale, which offers an immersive language program for Spanish and French, will celebrate its 25th year of providing students with a comprehensive language-learning experience in 2023.
Currently serving more than 300 students, the private school welcomes students from 18 months of age to the eighth grade. When enrolled, students choose either French or Spanish as their language of instruction.
Students learn from native speakers and experience curriculum similar to those in Spanish- and French-speaking countries, and they are taught almost exclusively in their foreign language of choice.
ISA’s mission is to “open doors to success in a constantly changing world,” while also maintaining a culturally-inclusive curriculum.
Unlike other language immersion schools locally, ISA is accredited by the French Ministry of Education and The Cervantes Institute in Spain, which gives the school the opportunity to bring in teachers from around the world with more ease. ISA is the only U.S. school to have received accreditation from The Cervantes Institute, according to its website.
Francis Hewitt, Director of Admissions at ISA, said teachers who are native speakers come from countries including Columbia, Mexico, Spain and France.
“I think what’s important is that — and this is something I learned in the first couple days which I love — we teach in the language,” Hewitt said.
Hewitt recently joined the school as its admission director in September. She said that the language rule applies to all grade levels, with the ratio of how much English is used increasing throughout the students’ academic careers at ISA.
For example, kindergarten through fifth grade is taught 80% in their foreign language and 20% in English, and middle schoolers receive instruction at a 50:50 ratio.
Where it began
Founded in 1998, ISA had humble beginnings, hosting its first classes in the basement of a church with only 13 students, focusing on French.
ISA’s Head of School Jason Smith explained what’s being taught today is a far cry from what they first offered, now teaching two languages to 318 students at its campus on San Salvador Drive.
Smith joined the school in 2021 and recently learned some of the school’s history from the Board of Trustees’ founding president, who currently lives in France. He was told the school’s original purpose was to provide the children of French transplants in Scottsdale with a French education.
Now, Smith said students from around Scottsdale and the Valley enroll at ISA because of a growing interest from multilingual families in having fluency in French or Spanish and other parents interested in having their children know another language.
According to Smith, teaching in the foreign language every day is what makes ISA stand out from other bilingual immersion schools, where typically only part of the school day or week is taught in the foreign language.
As Hewitt said, ISA students are taught in their foreign language 100% of the time until kindergarten where that number begins to change. In the classroom, teachers cover everything from grammar to the cultures associated with a student’s given language.
“That’s at the heart of what we do every single day, is making sure that you could take any of our students, any of our graduates, and drop them any place in the world and they would have the skills, the attitudes and the dispositions to be successful,” Smith said.
ISA preparing students for success is not limited to teaching another language; it also helps them be more receptive to new ideas and navigate, interact and communicate in a “culturally-responsive way.”
This, Smith and Hewitt explained, is evident with both students currently enrolled and alumni.
“I’m just blown away at the fluency that these kids already have,” Hewitt said.
A native Spanish speaker also fluent in French, Hewitt spoke of how impressed she was that younger students are proficient.
Even once they graduate from ISA, Hewitt said the school has helped prepare students to tackle their high school language classes as well. One alum told her that a book they’d read in sixth or seventh grade was something covered in their high school curriculum.
“There’s structure, there’s format, but they’re already learning the basic skills that we all learned, but they’re learning it in Spanish or in French,” Hewitt said, comparing ISA’s classes to a typical elementary school.