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Aprende con Amigos – How a Spanish immersion preschool expanded with the help of an SBA loan

Feb 15, 2024

Two preschool children working on a craft in a classroom

Stacey Dunbar is the founder and owner of Aprende con Amigos, a research-based Spanish immersion preschool in Portland, Oregon. Today, Aprende con Amigos is thriving, with multiple locations that serve over 120 students every year. While her small business journey wasn’t easy, the juice was worth the squeeze.

Discovering a love for Spanish immersion

Stacey’s interest in Spanish immersion began in Chicago.

Stacey Dunbar outside smiling at camera
Stacey Dunbar, Founder of Aprende con Amigos

“When I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I taught for a year in the Chicagoland area, and it was a very diverse population with a lot of native Spanish speakers,” says Stacey. “That whetted my appetite with wanting to communicate with families and make sure that those kiddos had the same advantages as everyone else.”

She then spent a few years teaching in Texas, where she got her ESL (English as a Second Language) certificate and learned Spanish by immersing herself with the Spanish-speaking students and families there. That led Stacey to become an educational consultant, helping school districts implement Spanish immersion programs in their schools.

Aprende con Amigos launched, and play-based learning began

When Stacey and her two preschool-aged sons moved to Portland, she wanted to put them in a research-based Spanish immersion preschool, but she quickly realized there weren’t any. “I felt like if I could teach other school districts how to implement a program then I should be able to do it myself,” says Stacey. “When I opened in 2009, I wasn’t bankable, so I had to get a loan from Mercy Corps Northwest, which I have deep gratitude for.” Mercy Corps helped Stacey get Aprende con Amigos up and running.

All classes at Aprende con Amigos are taught by native Spanish-speaking teachers. Stacey’s research-based curriculum follows a 90/10 Spanish immersion approach, with English spoken about 10% of the school day, usually as a social-emotional tool. To keep the students engaged, they rotate through three different classrooms throughout the day, each focused on a different learning topic such as language or science. The curriculum is also play-based, with hands-on activities. Native English-speaking students graduate with 100% auditory fluency and can produce their own 3–4-word phrases in Spanish.

Aprende con Amigos building
Aprende con Amigos

Expanding the business through an SBA loan

Aprende con Amigos was flourishing, but as they continued expanding to serve more children, Stacey faced more funding challenges.

“Honestly, as a single mom – as a woman – I was asked numerous times who my male partner was, and so I wasn’t as bankable for a long time,” says Stacey. “I had to prove myself even though I was profitable within the first six months of operation and never had a negative year.” Stacey decided to work with Beneficial State Bank’s SBA team. She was approved for an SBA loan, which allowed her to purchase a new building for her preschool. "It was my seventh offer on a building that finally stuck. I had been denied multiple times.”

An SBA (Small Business Administration) loan, which is partially guaranteed by the government, supports small business owners by offering competitive interest rates, low fees, and longer terms.

“I’ve had some unfair treatment in the past. Working with Beneficial State Bank has been a wonderful scenario where I finally qualified for an SBA loan and I don’t have as high rates,” explains Stacey. “I have deep gratitude for that. It matters who is by your side and how you look. Those things really do matter, and Beneficial is more supportive of that.”

Stacey Dunbar, Founder of Aprende con Amigos

When it comes to starting and growing a business, Stacey’s advice is “Don’t give up. Just stick with it.” She says things will naturally fall into place if you keep your eyes open for opportunities, keep pressing on, and lead with love and compassion.

Serving more Spanish-speaking families in Multnomah County

Aprende con Amigos was recently accepted for the Preschool for All pilot program in Multnomah County, which extends free, culturally responsive, inclusive preschool to families across the county. “We’re going to be able to start serving more native Spanish speakers which is very near and dear to my heart,” says Stacey. “I’ll love being able to serve the community in a more equitable fashion.”

Stacey also recently sold off a portion of Aprende con Amigos to a few of her long-term teachers. “They all have part ownership in the company,” says Stacey, explaining that her goal is to further help her team build wealth and develop professionally. “If you lead with kindness and compassion in everything that you do, then things go well,” says Stacey. “Being a leader is different than being a boss. You are of service to all people at all levels. They’re all important.”

Visit the Aprende con Amigos website to learn more about their innovative, research-based education model.

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