Sin Limites: An Afterschool Program Creating a Path to Success for Elementary Latino Students

By Pamela Acosta

For many years, foreign students arriving at schools in the United States would have to quickly learn English to adapt to their new country, often forgetting their native language and the connection to their heritage. But this upper-level Spanish course at the University of Arkansas is trying to change that. 

Students enrolled in SPAN 4563, an upper-level Spanish service-learning course, aim to help elementary students stay connected to their Hispanic heritage by helping them sharpen their writing and reading skills in Spanish. 

“We support academic excellence, and part of that excellence is continuing with your Spanish. You don’t have to sacrifice either language,” said Professor Luis Restrepo, who is behind the Sin Limites Biliteracy Program. 

“Subtractive education and programs like the ESL (English as a second language) try to quickly move students from one monolingualism to another monolingualism, and it is unjust to the kids. It robs them of the opportunity to communicate with their parents and grandparents and stay connected with their families.”  

Restrepo felt the pangs of this disconnection with his own daughter. He recalls visiting her elementary school and started speaking in Spanish at the cafeteria. She stopped him and told him, ‘no Spanish here.’ 

“She was embarrassed,” said Restrepo. “I was angry with her at first, but I realized it’s not her; it’s the medium. We must change the medium, and that’s what we’re trying to do.” 

Students who enter ESL programs in the United States are often discouraged from speaking Spanish in school so they can learn English quickly. Some school administrators, teachers, and parents believe that’s the best approach to help children adapt quickly and not get confused with the two languages.

The idea of monolingualism being a better solution for educating children stems from an amendment to the Bilingual Education Act (BEA) of 1968. The focus on English immersion occurred during the Reagan administration. Reagan’s secretary of education, William Bennett, declared bilingual education a failure and proposed English as a second language as a better alternative.

However, projects like Sin Limite and other studies believe that making children lose their Spanish is a mistake. 

“Half the world is bilingual. We must teach parents and educators that speaking Spanish and English is the key to academic success. We must break down those myths about speaking Spanish or being bilingual,” said Restrepo. 

“And it starts at the elementary level. That’s where we have to do that intervention before these kids build that negative perspective of their native tongue because they have already been told time and time again, ‘no Spanish,’ ‘no Spanish.’ By the time they get to the university, they have already heard a lot of ‘no’s’ around Spanish, and they’re hesitant to continue learning it.” 

The kids participating in the Sin Limites project are growing up encouraged to use their native language and the knowledge that comes with being bilingual. 

“That’s what we’re trying to teach, that it’s okay; it’s more than okay to be bilingual. It’s actually great,” said University of Arkansas Assistant Professor Raquel Castro Salas, who teaches the SPAN 4563 class. 

Several studies show bilingual individuals have more active and flexible brains. Research shows people who speak more than one language develop more flexible approaches to problem-solving. Bilingual people also have an easier time understanding math, developing strong thinking skills, using logic, focusing, remembering, and making decisions. 

In addition, bilingual individuals can participate in the global community in more ways, get information from more places, and learn more about people from other cultures – making the place where they live more diverse and inclusive. 

The project and those involved are also trying to change the narrative about learning English as a second language. 

“Language is performative, right? So, when a kid is tagged with the label ‘limited English proficiency,’ that kid is labeled with a limit. So, being bilingual becomes a defect when it is positive. So, with this program, even if it’s little by little, we want to change how speaking Spanish is viewed and what being bilingual means,” said Castro Salas. 

The Sin Límites–The Latino Youth Biliteracy Project was established in 2011 by the Department of World Languages, Literatures and Cultures at the UA Fayetteville campus in collaboration with the Latin American and Latino Studies program and the Oficina Latina.

Around 200 university students have participated in Sin Limites, helping more than 300 elementary students improve their native tongue literacy and feel a little more confident speaking Spanish. 

Castro Salas recalls a timid elementary student who was embarrassed to speak Spanish because he believed he didn’t speak it well. By the semester’s end, he could write a poem and say it out loud. 

“It’s incredible to see this kid’s growth from being embarrassed and too self-conscious to say words in Spanish to being okay with writing a poem and saying it out loud about how he feels about being bilingual,” he said. 

“Half the world is bilingual. We must teach parents and educators that speaking Spanish and English is the key to academic success. We must break down those myths about speaking Spanish or being bilingual.”

The Sin Limites project has also influenced the university students participating in the mentoring program. Many of the students who’ve taken SPAN 4563 feel compelled to continue helping the Latino community, with many of them becoming the current Latino teachers in the area. 

After being on pause for three semesters during the pandemic, the Sin Limites project and SPAN 4563 are relaunching two days a week as guests in another after-school program. 

“We only have the resources to restart as a pilot program, but in an ideal world, this is something that I want to put out there,” said Restrepo. 

Last year, Restrepo and Castro Salas collaborated with congresswoman Megan Godfrey to present legislation allowing for the development of a bilingual dual immersion program in Arkansas. Stemming from this, Restrepo and Castro Salas, along with other faculty, received a $50,000 grant to create a roadmap for Spanish immersion teaching and shed some light on the benefits of bilingual education.