Becoming Bilingual through Woodbury’s Immersion Education

Spanish Immersion education arrives at Woodbury High School.
Katherine Gustafson reads with teaching assistant Paola Monroy at Nuevas Fronteras Spanish Immersion School

This fall, nine years after the introduction of Spanish Immersion kindergarten in South Washington County Schools/District 833, the program’s first freshman class will enter Woodbury High School. Dedicated parents, teachers and administrators have paved a way for this valuable program to culminate with a high school language immersion experience. Here is a look back at the development and growth of Spanish immersion in the district, how it works and what parents and educators appreciate about immersion education.   A Look Back~ Allison Olson learned Spanish the traditional way, by taking Spanish classes. It wasn’t until she studied abroad in Spain that she became fluent. Since then, Olson believes being bilingual has benefited her career as well as her overall brain function. But becoming proficient was difficult. She wanted the acquisition of a second language to be easier for her children.             In 2002, Olson phoned the principal of Adams Spanish Immersion School in St. Paul. She wanted to investigate the possibility of enrolling her son in that program. Olson says, “The principal laughed because my son was only 18 months old at the time. But she also told me another Woodbury mom had called to inquire about enrollment. She suggested the two of us connect and see if District 833 would be interested in offering its own immersion program.”             That year, a group of parents began meeting and a Spanish Immersion Task Force was created to gather research and propose immersion programming to the district. Two years later, after much research, planning and development, the school board approved a Spanish Immersion program proposal. Enthusiastic families waited in long lines to enroll their kindergartners in the program. That fall, the district’s first kindergarten class of 59 students entered the Spanish Immersion program then housed at Bailey Elementary School.             Additional grade levels were added each year to accommodate continued growth. By 2007, the Spanish Immersion School was classified as an independent elementary school within the district and given the name Nuevas Fronteras, meaning, New Frontiers. That same year, the entire elementary immersion program was moved to a section of the Crestview Elementary School building in Cottage Grove. By 2010, Nuevas Fronteras reached capacity with 360 students in grades K-5, and a sixth grade Spanish Immersion class was added at Cottage Grove Middle School. Interest in immersion education remains high throughout Minnesota and enrollment at Nuevas Fronteras continues at full capacity. To accommodate demand for immersion programing, kindergarten enrollment at Nuevas Fronteras now operates through a lottery-based system.   The Spanish Immersion Model~ Unlike traditional language instruction, the immersion model utilizes the Spanish language as the sole communication tool for instruction in all subjects. Kindergartners and first graders whose native language is not Spanish are immersed in five hours of instruction delivered in only Spanish. Students are also required to reply in Spanish. According to the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition at the University of Minnesota, it’s this authentic communication that allows students to learn Spanish in a manner similar to how they learned their native language. All textbooks, coursework and curriculum for immersion students are identical to District 833’s traditional classrooms except they are printed in Spanish. English translations of textbooks are available online for parents to assist with homework. Grades 2-5 receive 4½ hours of instruction in Spanish and a half-hour of specific English instruction to accommodate the unique complexities of the English language. Classes such as gym and art are taught in English.             The immersion education model shifts a bit during the middle school years. In grades 6-8, immersion students receive a two-hour block of immersion instruction. The remainder of their school day is spent with other students in traditional classrooms. This allows immersion students to socialize with the greater middle school population and grow a wider base of friendships.   Language Ambassadors~ The majority of parents of immersion students do not speak Spanish. This precludes them from being particularly helpful inside an immersion classroom. To overcome this obstacle, the PTSO at Nuevas Fronteras developed a teaching assistant program that involves bringing native Spanish-speaking teaching aids from around the globe into immersion classrooms. PTSO fundraisers cover all expenses and host families generously provide housing to these international guests.             The Gustafson family has three Spanish Immersion students. They hosted teaching assistant Paola Monroy from Columbia for six months. “Paola was a great addition to our family,” says Laurie Gustafson. “She made a special point to connect with our kids by sharing her culture and family history.”             Obvious benefits to international teaching assistants include exposure to American culture and an opportunity to practice teaching and English language skills. “We asked Paola to speak only in Spanish with our children,” says Gustafson. “She practiced her English with me and my husband, John. It was delightful to hear Paola and our kids play ping pong or paint each others nails while chattering away in Spanish.”             Nuevas Fronteras parent and middle school teaching assistant program coordinator, Jamey Iovino, is passionate about the international teaching assistant program. “Our teachers speak to their students in Spanish,” says Iovino. “But the presence of a Spanish-speaking teaching assistant allows kids to hear fluent conversations. The kids also discover and experience different cultures through firsthand connections with these international visitors.”             The Iovinos once hosted a teaching assistant from Columbia who still phones Jamey each year to wish her a happy Mother’s Day. “We email and Skype with our past teaching assistants,” Iovino says. “They refer to us as their American family and we have an open door policy should they ever want to visit again.”   The Future~ The addition of a high school component to the district’s Spanish Immersion program elates families who’ve invested in this particular education model. Many have chosen immersion not only for its bilingual benefits, but also for the cognitive benefits said to be gained by second language instruction. Research suggests second language instruction increases student creativity, complex problem-solving ability, intellectual flexibility and cultural awareness.             “We live in an increasingly global society,” says Mike McCollor whose daughter, Madeline, was part of the first Spanish Immersion kindergarten class and is now entering the high school program. “Our kids speak, read and comprehend Spanish. The high school program will cement their second language acquisition. It will also allow students to test out of AP or PSEO with Spanish credit and provide great practicum opportunities.”             Opportunities being discussed for high school immersion students include community internships as translators for businesses, social service organizations and area hospitals as well as educational trips abroad.             Woodbury High School principal Linda Plante says she believes in immersion programing. “Immersion education gives students access and advantages in the broader world economy,” Plante says. “Woodbury High School is a premier high school in Minnesota and the addition of Spanish Immersion compliments everything else we offer.”