Heartland Magazine, Fairbanks Daily-News Miner, Fairbanks, Alaska, October 3, 2004
Story and photos by SHANA LOSHBAUGH
"I was just amazed at how little people knew about foreign languages and how good they are for children's minds." Svetlana Nuss, Academy director.
"Rot, nos, ushi ee glaza," a little girl sang shyly, touching part of her face.
The tune was familiar as "Head and shoulders, knees and toes," She was not making up nonsense words: She was singing a version in Russian, and learning a new language as part of the game.
Combining languages, learning and fun is the mission at the International Academy of Fairbanks.
The private school opened its doors a year ago and began its second year of classes September 18. It offers Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Russian and Spanish, also conducts classes in Anchorage and is the only Alaska institution offering so many languages to children as young as 3 years old.
A week before fall classes began, director Svetlana Nuss and several of her teachers hosted an open house. Families came for a variety of reasons. They included newcomers from California whose son had just returned frîm Japan, a couple with an adopted child frîm Russia and an immigrant grandmother hoping to pass her German heritage on to the new generation.
Some present attended the academy last year and were enthusiastic about signing up for the next session.
Maria Giannetto, 12, and her mother, Anna, took the adult Korean course together last year. They found it a real challenge compared to their earlier work on French, but plan to keep working on it.
"It's hard," Maria said of the language.
The teacher drilled them, writing the new alphabet on the chalkboard, and explained how Koreans assemble symbols and roots into words quite differently than in European languages, she said.
Anna had investigated language courses available elsewhere, but found the offerings limited and too dry to keep young students' attention.
When she first heard about the academy, she was skeptical. But now she praises it highly.
"They are very user-friendly," she said. "It's almost like one-on-one because the classes are so small. And it's a really relaxed, fun atmosphere."
The Rathbun family is equally enthusiastic. Danielle, 12, and Joshua, 10, started Russian last year because their grandparents are working in Siberia as missionaries. They described how they watched Russian movies, made cards for the Russian holiday Women's Day, read a translation of "Masha and the Three Bears" and learned to count while playing ball games.
"I learned a lot," Danielle said. "The sentences are kind of weird.
Instead of 'I love you,' it's 'I you love.'"
"I want us all to go to Russia some day," Danielle and Joshua's mother, Debbie, said.
She grew up in a family of linguists and is delighted her children can learn a second tongue.
"It really enriches your life," she said.
The academy is the brainchild and labor of love of Svetlana Nuss, a Russian immigrant who wanted her own children to experience the best of both Russian and American school systems.
While many educational opportunities available to Alaska families impress her, Nuss said she was dismayed to discover that language instruction is relegated to the teen years and tight budgets have limited arts opportunities. She remembered her own childhood, when Soviet school days were full of foreign words, dancing, visual arts, music and special projects such as puppet theater.
If such instruction was not available in Fairbanks, she resolved to provide it herself. She knew she was uniquely qualified to tackle the formidable task.
Nuss came frîm a family of teachers and always knew she wanted to be one, too.
"When I was growing up, I knew exactly what I was doing," she said. "Every doll was graded."
Attending university years later, she became fascinated by linguistics, including problems of how best to teach foreign language skills. While teaching adults at a linguistics university at Pyatigorsk, in the Caucasus region near war-torn Chechnya and working on a doctoral thesis, she took on a summer job as an English translator on a Siberian oil spill.
Among the foreigners she met was Alaska computer specialist Keith Nuss. A long-distance romance followed. She dismayed her colleagues and surprised herself by dumping a plum new job as the chair of her university's foreign language department to run off to America and marry Keith.
Amanda Welton, plays a ball game with Russian language teacher Yuliya Kermes.
Christina and Mariya Nuss hold up flash cards of Chinese characters. The sisters, 5 and 7, are the daughters of the International Academy director Svetlana Nuss.
Her new life was a total departure from her past. Her husband relocated frîm Valdez to Fairbanks, where he works for VECO. Nuss found herself an American housewife with two small children, a tight budget and fabulous professional credentials not transferable to the United States.
She ended up selling Mary Kay cosmetics. Her Russian family was horrified. She had no background in either cosmetics or sales.
"I knew nothing about sales. But I'm a good student," she said. "A few months after I started the business I had a free car."
When her elder daughter reached school age, she phased out the successful cosmetics business. It provided seed money for the school.
Combined with her teaching expertise, the entrepreneurial savvy she gained in cosmetic sales made the start-up of a school feasible.
She began talking to parents and found a real demand for language studies.
Immigrants were distressed that their children didn't speak the language of their grandparents; American-born families wanted to broaden their children's educational horizons or explore ethnic heritage; home-school families were looking for community resources.
She also found ignorance.
"I was just amazed at how little people knew about foreign languages and how good they are for children's minds," she said.
Instructor Yuliya Kermes helps her students translate simple stories in English into spoken Russian. Like other teachers at the International Academy, she is a native speaker and emphasizes correct pronunciation.
Zack Welton, 11, checks out his hand in a game of dominos while teacher Yuliya Kermes sets up the rest of the language game for the second-year Russian class.
Nuss presented seminars on the benefits of foreign-language instruction and spread the word.
"It's not just for traveling," she emphasized.
She compare knowing a foreign language to knowing how to drive a car. You can live without it, but it makes a huge difference in how easily you can get around and how far you can go.
She cited numerous studies and news reports showing that most children can readily learn multiple languages and that such multilingualism enhances both educational achievement and economic opportunities. People who add foreign language proficiency to other skills get a huge boost in the job market. Unfilled needs exist for multilingual workers in everything frîm translating Hollywood movies to national security, she said.
Reaching out to potential clients, her next steps were to find teachers and a site.
Finding teachers was easy. Fairbanks area residents include many educated and motivated people frîm abroad. Some were top-notch teachers in their countries of origin, stymied frîm teaching in Alaska because of problems transferring credentials.
Her Anchorage Arabic teacher, for example, worked as a flight instructor in Egypt. But in the United States he drives a school bus because he lacks the licenses to pursue his former career.
The Fairbanks school now has 13 teachers; 10 teach languages.
She found a serendipitous solution to the space problem when she stopped by the private, nondenominational Lighthouse Community Christian School off College Road. Principal Birgit Meany was sympathetic and had space. They worked out an agreement whereby the International Academy uses the religious school's classrooms after hours and during weekdays and shares costs for support staff.
"It worked out for both parties quite well," Meany said.
Lack of appropriate curriculum materials proved an unexpected problem.
Most foreign-language or bilingual materials available are geared for older children of assume a familiarity (that may not exist) with another culture.
Nuss cited the example of Mexican fiestas. "I still don't know exactly what 'fiesta' is. Maybe I have to go there and experience it," she said.
She and her staff tackled the teaching-materials gap the same way they tool on other challenges. They have created their own materials, translating stories familiar to young Alaskans into other languages and making tapes.
Last year, the school started with 70 students. The classes, scheduled for the participants' convenience, met once a week for sessions lasting 45 minutes to an hour.
Nuss is particular about the lesson plans. They relay upon scientifically based methods she learned in Russian pedagogical training.
"I know how it needs to be done and what works. This is what I was trained for," she said.
"They speak frîm the very first class."
The youngsters play games and take part in carefully scripted activities designed to involve all their senses, focus their minds in a manner that mimics the way youngsters learn their first language. The emphasis in on intense concentration; distractions are discouraged.
The approach is hard work for the teachers. Not only must they hew to the script, they also must choreograph all the action around them, keep a fast pace and charm the children. When classes end, they are tired.
"Really, they are actors," Nuss said.
To accelerate learning, students may take a second session, called Culture Club, designed to increase exposure to the language in a less formal, more activity-oriented atmosphere.
As the International Academy developed, Nuss set up summer sessions and added classes in visual arts, music theory, international dance, puppet theater, movie-making and children's introduction to finances.
This year, she plans to teach most of the Russian classes herself. She thrives on the work, radiating energy and enthusiasm. She says she tries to balance the frenetic pace at the point that it provides her with just enough challenge to keep her on the run without frustration.
She admitted, with laugh, that selling cosmetics was far more lucrative. But this is the career she loves.
But, even more than that, she is doing it to provide her daughters, now 5 and 7, with the kind of education she believes is best for them. She said she uses them as "guinea pigs" and adds subjects primarily because she wants them for her own family.
Vladimir Kulchitskiy, 7, and Kally Maddox, 4, performed at a Fairbanks street fair downtown this past summer. Their Russian dance was part of the Dances of the World class held at the International Academy. In addition to language instruction, the academy offers classes in arts and even finances for children. Photo courtesy of International Academy.
International Academy Director Svetlana Nuss, dressed in traditional Russian costume, speaks with a potential student at a downtown street fair during the summer. Photo courtesy of International Academy.
"This school takes all the energy out of me, but it makes me a happy mom," she said.
This coming Saturday is "Visit a Class Day" at the International Academy. Visitors are invited to see and participate in the academy's interactive classes on world languages and culture. 1524 Westwood Way. Call 458-9313 to sign up.
Writer Shana Loshbaugh lives hear Fairbanks.
Heartland Magazine, Fairbanks Daily-News Miner, Fairbanks, Alaska, October 3, 2004
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