“It’s good for business,” Gavin Uzzell said, praising the value of a Spanish Immersion education in the Spring Lake Park School District.
For Gavin, it will be some day. He isn’t a wizened CEO – he’s a fourth-grade student who knows that becoming bilingual will only help him as he goes through life.
Gavin’s class will be the first to graduate from the Spanish Immersion program next year when they finish fifth grade and transition to middle school.
The program is only K-4 today, but it continues to grow.
New space, new identity
The district began offering Spanish Immersion education to kindergartners in 2009. Students could study at Northpoint Elementary School or Woodcrest Elementary School.
When kindergartners became first graders, the program moved to one site at the Westwood complex. As students advanced, a grade level was added to the program each subsequent year.
Today, the program is K-4 in its own building, the former Woodcrest Elementary School site in Fridley.
Before classes began this fall, Woodcrest Elementary School students and classroom teachers joined Park Terrace Elementary School students and staff over in Spring Lake Park.
Many specialty teachers remain at Woodcrest and although they do not all speak fluent Spanish like the classroom teachers do, they “honor the language,” Spanish Immersion Coordinator Richie Kucinski said. “Lots of the non-Spanish teachers are having a good time learning the language.”
Being in its own building allows the program to create its own school culture, something it could never fully do at Westwood, according to Kucinski.
“What we really value here is the sacredness of the language,” Kucinski said.
Classroom teachers speak to students and one another exclusively in Spanish.
Additionally, all signage is in Spanish. “¡Bienvenidos a nuestra escuela!” the sign in front of the school declares. “Welcome to our school!”
Students call it their little “isla,” their little island, Kucinski said, because it is distinct from most of their homes, Minnesota and the United States where English is the primary spoken language.
An opportunity for new partnerships
Though the Spanish Immersion program no longer has to share space with other elementary classes, it does inhabit Woodcrest with the District 16 Early Childhood Center.
Two Spanish Immersion preschool classes, started three years ago, provide an opportunity for fourth graders, the eldest in the building, to build confidence in their Spanish speaking.
A different set of fourth graders, five to six students each week, visit Sue Wimler’s preschool classes to read to the four-year-olds and help with lessons.
“They’re teaching me!” Wimler said of the fourth graders. She doesn’t speak much Spanish, so she leans on paraeducator Sara Sangiovanni to lead the lessons she’s planned.
Sangiovanni read Jan Brett’s “El mitón,” or “The Mitten” to students Jan. 16.
Fourth-graders Gavin Knudson, Maggie Pecha, Morgan Sylvester, Gavin Uzzell and Lotus Yang helped the preschoolers identify “animales” as they were introduced in the story.
El ratón, mouse. El zorro, fox.
When the story concluded, the fourth graders read familiar books en español to smaller groups of preschoolers.
Three little girls sat riveted, eyes glued to “Diez perritos,” or “Ten Little Puppies,” as Morgan read the story aloud to them.
Morgan uses Spanish outside of school, too, she said. Last year, she was able to have a conversation in Spanish in the Dominican Republic when her family vacationed there, she said.
Before returning to her own class, Maggie grinned. It’s fun to play with little kids, she said.
In July, District 16 administrators began meeting to discuss how Spanish Immersion education can continue beyond the fifth grade.
The district plans to offer some subjects in Spanish in the Spring Lake Park middle and high schools as the immersion program’s inaugural class hits those grade levels, Kucinski said.
For example, students might elect to take a social studies or music class in Spanish rather than English, depending upon what is offered.
Kucinski, Director of Educational Services Denise Waalen and Assistant Principal of Westwood Middle School Joel Young are looking two years ahead to start lining up options.
Olivia Koester is at [email protected]