Park Spanish Immersion School:
A Budding Program of Academic
Excellence and Language Learning
The ACIE Newsletter, March 2000, Vol. 3, No. 2
By Ursina Swanson, Principal, Park Spanish Immersion School, St. Louis Park, Minnesota
In the fall of 1996, St. Louis Park, Minnesota, began its Spanish Immersion Program with its first cohort of 60 students. The school came into being at the behest of a group of committed parents and interested community members, who wished to provide the parent community with some choice for their elementary school students. For a number of years previously, numerous visits were made to neighboring immersion schools (Robbinsdale and Edina) as the St. Louis Park district determined how to best implement this alternative program.
The mission of Park Spanish Immersion School (PSI) is to provide a dual language education that promotes academic excellence, intellectual curiosity, and cultural understanding.
Like other immersion programs, the PSI program is based on the theory that language is best acquired through content-based language instruction in the classroom. Our students learn language because they are totally absorbed in it. They learn Spanish in meaningful contexts. Learning outcomes and activities align themselves with the St. Louis Park district's elementary curriculum, using it as the vehicle to teach the Spanish language. Our immersion school program integrates the entire elementary school content, plus Spanish language instruction.
Spanish is used exclusively in kindergarten and first grade. In second grade, one-half hour of English language instruction per day is added. English language classes are taught by a specialist teacher so that classroom teachers need not switch to English in the presence of students. Spanish language and English language arts are not taught in isolation, but rather in a holistic manner; that is, classroom teachers and the English teacher work closely together when preparing lessons so that grammar points and concepts are reinforced in each class. Further, the same curriculum is used for both Spanish and English language instruction.
We aim to maximize the amount of Spanish students hear during school hours. This school year, we have made a renewed effort for all (specialist teachers and administrative staff) to ensure that only Spanish be used in the presence of students. Likewise, we have asked volunteer parents that they refrain from English conversations when helping in classrooms. Teachers will call them a day in advance and explain the tasks to be completed.
In kindergarten and the first half of Grade 1, students still use mostly English. However, teachers respond to students' questions exclusively in Spanish, unless it is a health or safety issue. After the winter break, first grade students are also expected to use Spanish in their responses and among themselves.
Curriculum Components, Assessment Practices, and Media Resources
PSI teachers use and develop integrated theme-based units at all grade levels. This required many hours of curriculum writing and translating, resulting in many extra hours for immersion teachers. In an effort to reduce some of this extra work load, the St. Louis Park district purchased both Spanish and English language arts curricula for the immersion school. Teachers can supplement these curricula with authentic literature and texts with which they are familiar, and from Spanish-speaking regions of the world that they might be studying. These language arts curricula further assure that the scope and sequence is followed at each grade level, something that is often overlooked when teachers write curriculum in isolation.
Grade-level teams are currently developing benchmark tests to assess Spanish language skills at the end of each grade. This will give us a better understanding of our students' Spanish language skills. We emphasize the development of strong literacy skills, which support the Minnesota Standards, so that our students can successfully pass the required state reading and writing assessments administered in third grade.
The PSI media center is in its developmental stages. The computer lab and the development of both the English and Spanish print collections is an on-going task. This is the first year that we have adequate space to house both computers and print media.
Parent and Community Involvement
Since its inception, PSI and its staff have relied heavily on parent involvement and support. PSI is managed by a site council made up of parents, community members, and staff, with the principal as administrator. Parent volunteers are a part of every aspect of the school. They assist teachers in classrooms, publish a monthly newsletter, and provide additional supervision for lunchroom and playground. Parent and community involvement is key to the success of our immersion school. This close communication and cooperation between school and home results in a family feeling and atmosphere surrounding the school. This provides an added benefit of everyone connected to the school having a sense of belonging to a special learning community.
Current Program Challenges
As a new and developing school, there are areas for challenge and growth. Because an outstanding teaching staff is key to developing a high quality immersion school, our greatest challenge is being able to continue to attract well-qualified and experienced immersion teachers with native or native-like proficiency, a challenge that all immersion programs face.
Another challenge is for our students to have greater exposure to Spanish speakers. In order to provide these additional language experiences, we would like to initiate an Amity scholar program. This would bring native Spanish speakers into our classrooms as language assistants. An additional Spanish language model would give each student greater opportunities to use their growing Spanish skills.
Professional development for new and experienced immersion teachers must become a priority for PSI. Identifying funding so that we are able to send all PSI classroom teachers to the annual CARLA Summer Immersion Institute is another goal for our school. A staff that is well informed about best practices for the immersion setting is imperative if PSI is to continue its tradition of excellence.
Perhaps our greatest challenge at present is the facility in which the immersion school is housed. Operating an immersion school in a community center brings with it issues of security for students and staff, the need to keep instructional areas free of public traffic, and obstacles to preserving our Spanish-only guideline in an English environment. All too frequently, it seems, immersion schools are placed in less than adequate facilities. This puts an unnecessary burden on immersion educators, whose time and energy are already stretched as they develop new curricula and strive to balance language and content instruction. It is the responsibility of district staff and administrators to make the immersion teachers' task feasible and as free of strain as possible.
Key Program Strengths
PSI's major strengths are found in several distinct areas. First to be mentioned is the dynamic and committed teaching staff, whose enthusiasm and love for the Spanish language and culture allows them to provide lessons to students day after day, which impart not only the elementary content but also language learning aspects. This staff was instrumental in the start-up of the school, and they continue to be a main reason parents make the choice of the immersion program for their children.
Another area of excellence is the high concern PSI has to maintain the use of Spanish only during the school day. Teachers, para-professionals, the administrator, and parent volunteers all use Spanish around students. Our belief is that every opportunity must be used during the school hours for students to hear and practice Spanish. This is an exceptional feat in an environment where everyone around us speaks English.
As previously described, a third major strength of the school is the close synergy between school and home. Many school needs are met by the PTO or by parents. The school could not begin to function as smoothly without the many areas where parents step in to help. This collaboration between home and school has allowed this newest Twin Cities area immersion school to become a sought-after elementary option.