Albert G. Prodell Middle School students study abroad with Madrid 2017 classmates. Photo from Marc Dinowitz

By Kevin Redding

A total 3,521 miles separates Shoreham-Wading River and Madrid, Spain, but thanks to a long-running school program, the two regions couldn’t be closer.

Every February since 1983, a pack of eighth-graders studying Spanish at Albert G. Prodell Middle School travel to Madrid for an immersive and unforgettable exchange program. Nineteen students will embark on the 35th annual trip Feb. 9, during which they will be matched with host families, attend school at IES Santamarca and tour the expansive city for two weeks — relying on and strengthening their foreign language skills along the way. In April, following tradition, the school will welcome students from the Madrid school, who stay with their corresponding host families in Shoreham and absorb American culture through the lens of Long Island. Although the program’s locations have remained the same for nearly four decades, the itineraries of the trips are always unique — being based on the parents and students involved.

Shoreham, the only public school district in the nation with this kind of program, has held onto it against several odds. Even in 1991, in the midst of the Gulf War when people were afraid to travel, enough support for the program existed to send four students abroad.

“It’s so deeply rooted in the community — I’m so proud,” said Barbara Gaias, who started the program after being hired as a Spanish teacher at the middle school in 1981, and maintains her involvement even in retirement. “Now we have students going whose parents went when they were younger. People say they want to take Spanish instead of French because they know they have the chance to go to Spain. Their Spanish skills are just unbelievable upon returning.”

Throughout the trip, Gaias said Shoreham students are expected to make orders while in restaurants and regularly communicate with strangers.

“We try to put them in uncomfortable situations — we want them to be able to use their language ability,” she said. “When they come back, the kids are so much better, particularly in listening skills. As a result of the trip, they really serve as leaders not just in Spanish class, but in the school. They’re junior ambassadors.”

Marc Dinowitz, whose daughter Jillian went on the trip in 2014, volunteered as coordinator of the exchange program in June 2017. Together, with a band of parents, he spearheaded fundraising efforts to pay for the events that take place during the two weeks in April. This year, 20 Madrid students will be visiting Shoreham. In past years, Shoreham’s fundraising efforts have gone toward providing the visiting students with a tour of the Montauk Lighthouse and museum, a ride on a water taxi around the Statue of Liberty and tickets to a New York Yankees baseball game.

The trip to Spain is paid for by each individual participant. Dinowitz and four chaperones will be joining the Shoreham students this year.

“It’s all worth it for me to watch the kids’ transformation by the end of the program,” Dinowitz said. “And getting to see them integrate into those families and then having the other kids come back and become part of our families — these are lifelong bonds and friendships.”

Kim DiPaola, a 1993 Shoreham graduate, said she had an incredible experience when she took part in the program, and was immediately supportive when her daughter, Isabella, expressed interest in going this year.

“I hope that she more or less experiences what I did,” DiPaola said. “I learned so much about Madrid’s culture, and just got to experience such a different way of life.”

Isabella said she’s been geared up to go to Madrid for a while now, between her mother’s experience there and seeing some friends’ pictures of their trip from previous years on social media.

“I’ve been looking forward to it since I was in sixth grade,” Isabella said. “I’ve honestly never been more excited for something in my life.”

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