About 10 young children, their mothers, and a few educators were coloring, playing with puzzles and reading picture books in a Redmond Early Learning Center classroom Thursday morning. And the only language spoken in the room was Spanish.

These families were participating in a program new to Central Oregon: Juntos Aprendemos, operated and funded by the High Desert Educational Service District. The program helps parents and preschool-age children of Spanish-speaking families in Bend and Redmond prepare for kindergarten by learning literacy, social and motor skills.

“A lot of the Spanish-speaking kids that are coming to school are not ready for kindergarten, they don’t have the skills,” said Gabriela Hernandez-Peden, the program’s coordinator. “Our hope is to prepare them for school and understand the education system, and I think that can be a very scary world when there is a language barrier.”

Hernandez-Peden said that in Juntos Aprendemos — Spanish for “we learn together” — High Desert ESD educators teach children in Spanish only, partly because it’s the language these children are most familiar with.

“When we see kids that have a strong base in their language that they see and hear every day, when they start kindergarten, then you see those kids go like, ‘Oh, I know this sound,’” she said. “A lot of things transfer to the English language.”

Teaching the classes entirely in Spanish also helps the children learn to embrace their Latino heritage, according to Hernandez-Peden.

“We don’t want them to think their culture isn’t important,” she said. “We want them to celebrate it, and why not around a group of people that also celebrate these same traditions? I think it gives that child better self-esteem when they understand who they are.”

The program, which launched in Central Oregon in April, has two locations: Jewell Elementary School in southeast Bend and the Redmond Early Learning Center. Parents arrive with their kids, and for the first portion, they do activities together. Afterward, they’re separated. The children continue to learn basic literacy skills with High Desert ESD educators, while the parents get a crash course in how they can best support their children during their school years.

“The amazing thing is, while I’m teaching these parents, they know so much already,” Hernandez-Peden said. “It’s really amazing to watch the parents say, ‘Oh wow, I am a teacher to my child.’”

Juntos Aprendemos has a track record of success in the Portland region. Formed in 1999 with three Latino families in Multnomah County, the program has served more than 1,650 Latino children and parents and is offered in 12 elementary schools in Portland, Tigard and Tualatin, according to the nonprofit Latino Network, which runs the program in the Portland metro. Deschutes County is the first region outside the Portland area that Latino Network has shared its curriculum with, according to Hernandez-Peden.

Juntos Aprendemos, which costs High Desert ESD $100,000 annually, is funded by nonprofits The Collins Foundation, Oregon Community Foundation and Central Oregon Health Council. Hernandez-Peden said she was hired to coordinate the program locally. Before this year, she was the Latino services specialist at Deschutes Public Library.

The Latino Network reports that 97% of the children it worked with through 2014 are more skilled in counting and recognizing written letters than they were before they entered the program.

Hernandez-Peden said she jumped at the chance to lead Juntos Aprendemos when she heard it was coming to Central Oregon. Growing up in Los Angeles with two parents who had recently immigrated to the U.S. from Nicaragua, Hernandez-Peden never attended preschool and her mother was unable to prepare her for kindergarten.

“I have been that child, and I have had that mom, and I want to be able to support them because I didn’t get that,” she said. “If we would have had this, we would have benefited from it.”

Angela Vargas-Contreras, who brings her daughter Gloria Contreras to Juntos Aprendemos’ Redmond sessions, said she loves how the program is helping her 3-year-old daughter prepare for kindergarten while learning Spanish literacy. She said Gloria is enjoying the program, too.

“She loves it,” Vargas-Contreras said. “She gets very excited Thursday mornings when we get ready, because she’s going to go to her own school and do her own thing.”

In the fall, Hernandez-Peden said she hopes to expand Juntos Aprendemos to two more locations, one in Bend and one in Redmond. Eventually, she said, she’d like to see the program in Jefferson and Crook counties, as well.

But for now, Hernandez-Peden is considering the program’s Central Oregon expansion a success.

“Families keep coming; they like what their children are learning,” she said. “Some of them have already asked about the fall program, like, ‘When is it time to register for September?’”

— Reporter: 541-617-7854,