Spanish Immersion: Meet Equity.

PART 1

Inspired by Parent Interviews

Author, Jaime Kokaisel

published March 1st, 2022

The three Principals from the Spanish Immersion pathway schools are Cynthia Maldonado, Kari Lopez, and Sarah Sorenson-Wagner. As they spoke at the School Showcase in February, certain phrases caught my attention. Those phrases were, “Inclusive Dual Language Immersion” and “For a more inclusive and equitable program, we need a transition…” and “two-way immersion program for equity” and “student-centered”.

The SI program has an 18 year history in the school district. It began as a choice program for families back in 2003, and it was strictly one-way single language immersion, which means native English speakers were immersed in the Spanish language. However, by the district’s own admission and if we take their reasoning to its rational conclusion, they are now saying SoWashCo’s Single Language Spanish Immersion program has not been equitable or inclusive or student-centered this whole time.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? IS THAT TRUE? Let’s take a closer look. In order to understand whether Dual Language Immersion will garner the districts desire for an equitable, inclusive and student-centered result, I started by asking experienced SI parents and non-SI parents. I focused my interviews around these three questions…

WHY is immersion important to our community?

HOW did the program first get started?

WHAT changed in the last 20 years that would cause the district to establish new goals?

SINGLE LANGUAGE IMMERSION refers to one-way immersion (native English speakers learning Spanish). DUAL LANGUAGE IMMERSION refers to both one-way and two-way immersion (native English and native Spanish speakers learning together).

WHY is immersion important to our community?

The program began out of the desire to provide residents with a path for their children to become bilingual, biliterate and bicultural. One 8th grade SI parent said, “Our neighbors were in the program and were so pleased with it. I loved the idea of my children being bi-lingual.  I feel like it is such a critical skill in the world we live in and that it will open up so many opportunities for them down the road.” In a Woodbury Magazine article this past August 2021, Principal Cynthia Maldonado of Nuevas Fronteras Spanish Immersion School said that she wants her students to be “very open to other cultures, are globally aware and that they can work in the current world.”

An SI parent says, “The best part of the program has been the tight knit community, the opportunity for my children to speak another language and interact with others they may not have otherwise been able to…” She goes on to say, “I appreciate that our immersion program goes all the way through High School. Not all immersion programs in the Twin Cities do that, and it is a great benefit for them to maintain their fluency.”

Jessica Reginek is a parent with three children in the SI program, and she was also present at the Spanish Immersion School Showcase I attended in February. She told me how, “Pre-covid, speech assistants from Spain and Columbia would visit for a year and live with families. They are now called language ambassadors.” It sounds like this was all paid for through the Ptso board and parent fundraising. It was heart warming for me to hear how much of a positive impact these teachers, coming from Spanish speaking countries, make to the school culture and the school children alike. These teachers provide some of the richest content to native English speaking students in the immersion program.

HOW did the program first get started?

Let’s look from present to past… Currently, Spanish Immersion in SoWashCo begins with the dedicated Elementary School of Nuevas Frontras in Saint Paul Park. This building was funded through a grant given to the district by Minnesota Department of Education in 2015 to support the creation of DEDICATED immersion schools. Before becoming their own school, the immersion program was located within Crestview Elementary in Cottage Grove (and Bailey Elementary in Woodbury prior to that). SI in SoWashCo goes all the way back to 2003 when they started as a choice program.

The district DID consider dual language immersion back in the beginning. In fact, they spent an exorbitant amount of money and resources at that time to fly staff out West and learn the Dual Immersion way. The 18 year resident I spoke with remembers this moment in time well. “After all that though, they came back from the West Coast and decided on Single Immersion, modeling their program after the Minnetonka Public Schools ISD#276. Every school building there has immersion built into it.” No matter where a student lives in the Minnetonka school district, they have the option to learn a second language, either Chinese or Spanish. “It’s a great program!” she said. Minnetonka calls it “a School within a School Model” and it is a 12 year map, meaning immersion continues through Middle and High School.

Busing is provided for NFSI families throughout the district (a distance of 15 elementary school boundary lines). The only other schools to offer district-wide busing (versus standard boundary-wide) are New Life Academy Private School and Saint Ambrose Catholic School. This seems rather extravagant and exclusive for a public school. It certainly is different from 833’s original plan to model after Minnetonka.

If I didn’t know any better I’d mistake Nuevas Fronteras for a private school.

For being a public school, Nuevas Fronteras Elementary is quite the tailored experience. At one time space was limited, and there was a long wait list to get in. When the program was just beginning it carried a sense of distinction, prominence and prestige. A Woodbury High School parent I interviewed said, “Higher priority was given to SI than all other schools in the district. It created tension in the community which led to protests. I was one of them.” she said. “There were people who didn’t think SI should be getting everything they wanted at the expense of all other students.”

QUESTIONS: This leads me to wonder… Was the dedicated building 833’s decision? Or was it MDE’s decision? What happened to the model of “a school within a school”? What was their motivation to have a dedicated building, since clearly inclusivity cannot be claimed as the justification for such excessive spending? As you are reading this, if you have perspective on the issue, I welcome your thoughts. You can either comment below or you can contact me by email. I keep all information confidential unless given permission to use names.

The Pathway

Moving along, children who choose to remain in the program after Elementary School currently go on to Woodbury Middle School and finish at Woodbury High School. This pathway was established in 2018 at the request of Maldonado and SI leaders during the districts Middle School Boundary line changes. They were unhappy with their assigned pathway schools at the time.

For as controversial as these boundary changes were, I think it is important to note how little say Immersion families have had in the programs direction. Jessica Reginek talks about what a “resilient bunch” the immersion people are, “We have moved from school to school, and there has been constant change in regards to where kids are going. Elementary started at Bailey, then it moved to Crestview, now it’s at its own school. Middle School started at Cottage Grove and now it’s at Woodbury. And people have really just rolled with the punches. Because we don’t have a choice. If we want to be on the pathway, we follow it no matter where it goes or what school it changes to.”

At the secondary level, students complete two immersion classes a day, one in Spanish Language Arts and one in Social Studies. In HS, students can complete a capstone and work to earn a bilingual seal on their diploma. Busing to lower and upper secondary education, however, is no longer provided (unless within school boundaries). “It works only for students who have private transportation to and from school, which are usually the higher income families” says one parent.

This is when the program sees its most significant drop in attendance. Attrition has been a growing point of concern for the district. As one parent says, “There has been much concern over the low class sizes, the ‘Never criticize or question the SI program’, and the attrition from elementary to middle to high school.” The three principals agreed at the workshop that High School is now an opportune time to allow native Spanish speakers into the program, as Dual Immersion gets rolled out slowly to all grade levels.

After talking to parents though, changes are already present in all grade levels. A 10 year parent in the program says, “From the moment Cynthia came 4 years ago this was her plan. She wants it to be dual at all grade levels. But ‘Immersion’ is different than ‘dual’. It’s not the same thing.”

Unbeknownst to the general public, the elementary school has already been taking on an increasing number of native Spanish speakers. Hispanic enrollment over the last 10-11 years has seen a significant increase. I recognize not all Hispanic and Latino children come from families who speak Spanish at home, but for advertising itself for so long as strictly SPANISH immersion, NFSI’s growing population of ENGLISH learners is surprising. MN Report Card shows 4.4% in 2022 are English learners. This is quite a change from 12 years ago when, as a parent reminisced, “When we began SI, it was known that Spanish fluency in the home, such as a Spanish speaking parent, meant the student was refused admission into the program.” Most families, even the ones within the SI program, have not heard mention of “Dual Language Immersion”, nor is it anywhere to be found on the school website.

WHY THE SECRECY, I WONDER

This leads me to my final question…

WHAT changed in the last 20 years that would cause the district to establish new goals?

I will cover “WHAT changed” in Part 2 with more parent interviews. To wrap things up for now though, after looking at the history of Spanish Immersion in SoWashCo, I tend to agree with the districts assessment that it has not been very inclusive. This begs the question though: If Spanish Immersion in SoWashCo is not inclusive, diverse, or equitable then will a shift to Dual language Immersion make it more so?

At first glance, Principal Maldonado’s bilingual learning presentation makes dual language immersion seem like the right thing to do for English learners. She is the expert, right? Her graph clearly shows better results for them in a dual language model of education. How could it be harmful? Of course Cynthia and the school district want what is best for all students, right? Why wouldn’t they?

Of the few people who know about the change from Single to Dual though, they tell me “There is a lot of resistance to dual immersion.”

Unfortunately, it could be very harmful, and I will tell you why… next.

A TWO PART SERIES

CLICK HERE for PART 2 – “Spanish Immersion: is So Much More.

by JAiME for SCHOOLS March 1st 2022 (revised March 7th)

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